Final vote slated on Portland school budget

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PORTLAND — The School Committee on March 31 is scheduled to take a final vote on an $89.8 million budget that eliminates 53 jobs.

The committee will take its vote amid pressure from parents and teachers to reinstate teachers and from the City Council, which sets the bottom line for school spending, to reduce the budget’s impact on the property tax rate.

School Committee member Kate Snyder said the Finance Committee, which she chairs, decided not to make any formal recommendations to amend the fiscal 2011 budget presented last week to the full committee.

Instead, Snyder expects some changes to be recommended by individual School Committee members. She said she hopes any recommended changes will be consistent not only with the committee’s previous deliberations, but also with the district’s long-term goals and multi-year budget document.

“It’s very difficult to do anything outside of that at the 11th hour,” Snyder said. “It’s unsettling to people. At this point we have worked really hard to regain public confidence in the process and control the process.”

Snyder said any additions would have to heed the proposed 1.2 percent increase in taxes. She said the committee “was certainly feeling pressure from the City Council” to either maintain that tax increase or reduce it. 

One possible amendment would be reinstatement of $160,000 for two music teachers so the kindergarten through 12th-grade string program could be preserved, a move lobbied for by parents and students. Also, more educational technicians would be reinstated.

Snyder said the issue of freezing $978,000 million in salary increases for teachers was brought up at last week’s public hearing. But the committee will not consider that option, she said, since the teacher’s union would have to agree to renegotiate its contract, which expires at the end of the 2011 school year. 

“They have made it clear they are uninterested in coming forward and having that conversation,” Snyder said.

Portland Education Association President Kathleen Casasa said it is premature to “ask teachers to subsidize education.”

Casasa said the current contract contains no base raises and the increases are being driven by professional development and longevity, two areas that were limited last year when the union voluntarily renegotiated its agreement.

“It looks like teachers are getting a raise,” Casasa said, “but not all teachers are getting that raise.”

Casasa gave the School Committee a list proposed areas for savings prior to discussing salary freezes. Those areas included athletics, co-curricular activities, attorney fees and contracted services line items.

Casasa noted that efforts to reorganize Central Office administrators – which along with base and non-represented employees and ed techs, are slated for $209,000 in raises – by reassigning roles and job titles, rather than eliminating positions altogether, sends the wrong signal to teachers.

The reorganization would eliminate an assistant superintendent, human resource director, coordinator of benefits and public safety, educational planning director, special education director and maintenance supervisor. It would add a chief academic officer, chief finance officer, chief operations officer and two curriculum coordinators.

“We’ve got to find ways to streamline and cut back,” Casasa said.

Superintendent James C. Morse Sr. two weeks ago said the reorganization could save the district $97,000 a year. Last week, according to a published report, he said the effort would save only $38,000 a year.

Meanwhile, School Committee member Jaimey Caron said the administrative reorganization does not go far enough. He said he would like to add another administrator to divide the academic officer’s responsibilities into regular instruction and support services.

“It’s a lot to ask of one person because of the complexity of state and federal guidelines,” Caron said. “It’s hard to find to find one person who is an expert in all of those areas.”

The School Committee, Caron said, often struggles to find responsible people from which to get accurate information. Often, he said, that comes at the loss of state and federal funding.

Caron believes there is room in the current budget to support the extra administrator, who could help the district resolve education inequities that come along with site-based management, which pits schools against schools, rather than district-wide management.

“At most, it should be revenue neutral,” Caron said. “Over time, there is the opportunity to save money.”

The budget before the School Committee reinstates $1.1 million in cuts previously outlined in Morse’s budget. The additional funds come from revised revenue forecasts from the state.

Reinstated positions include 8.4 teachers for English Language Learners, three social studies teachers at Lincoln Middle School and two world language teachers, as well as a literacy aid and an instructional technology aid.

Another $100,000 was added back to install wireless networks at Lyseth, Hall and Longfellow elementary schools and $75,000 was added for a co-op at Portland High School.

Up to $800,000 may also be used for property tax relief. Morse’s original budget, though smaller, would have increased taxes by 2.5 percent, but the budget to be considered this week contains a 1.2 percent tax increase.

If approved, the school budget will be forwarded to the City Council. A city-wide referendum on school spending is scheduled for May 11.

Wednesday’s meeting will take place at 7 p.m. in room 250 of Casco Bay High School.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or