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Despite calls for cuts, South Portland School Board won't budge on budget

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Despite calls for cuts, South Portland School Board won't budge on budget

SOUTH PORTLAND — The School Board stood defiant Monday in the face the City Council's call to reduce the proposed fiscal 2013 school budget. 

"The only faith I have is the faith that this (budget) will move our school system forward, and that's why I'm not going to take a pencil and try to change anything," School Board member Richard Matthews said during the workshop.

While the City Council can't adjust line items in the School Board's proposal, it has the authority to approve or reject the budget as a whole. Councilors must approve the district's budget before it can be sent to voters for final approval. 

The numbers are a little tricky. All along, the School Board has framed its $40 million budget proposal as a 2.2 percent increase – about $762,000 – to be funded by taxpayers.

But that figure includes only the district's operating budget. When residents go to the polls in May, they'll also vote on costs associated with paying off the $41.5 million renovation of South Portland High School, an additional tax-funded cost next year of $525,000.

So the tax increase voters will see on their ballots is about 3.78 percent. Councilors last week asked the School Board to try to trim the increase to about 3 percent, or about $265,000. 

"We came to an operating budget of 2.2 percent that we were comfortable with," said School Board member Richard Carter. "I'm not comfortable lumping the first high school interest payment in."

If the proposed budget were approved by the City Council and residents, it would result in a 50-cent increase in the schools' share of the tax rate, from $10.15 per $1,000 of property value to $10.65 per $1,000.

The School Board will meet again with the City Council in a workshop on April 23. After that, the City Council will vote on the school budget on May 7, before a scheduled citywide referendum on May 15. 

Many board members said they wouldn't be willing to cut a single line out of the budget. Others said they'd defend their increases at the April 23 workshop, but recognized cuts would have to be made. 

School Board member Sara Goldberg cautioned against appearing too stubborn.

"We're saying, 'We want this, we want this,' but we're going to have to come back at this again. It feels like we're prolonging the inevitable," she said. "I feel like, in good faith, we should come back and try to say, 'Yes, there are a few things on here we could do without.'"

The two nonvoting board members, SPHS students Lizzy Canarie and Jackson Beck, also said the board should take a more responsive stance to councilors' request.

"If residents see that (3.78) percent budget, they're going to be furious," Canarie said. "So if we want to move forward with our 2.2 percent increase, there's a lot more education that needs to go on, because people aren't going t accept it."

Board Chairman Tappan Fitzgerald said he would stand with other members in defending their budget, but said the board needs to be prepared to present a convincing case to a City Council wary of voters who may be hawkish on the school budget. 

If they don't convince councilors on April 23, he said, the board would have only two weeks to amend the budget before the May 7 council vote, or risk having the council strike down the budget and force a rescheduling of the referendum.

"At the end of that meeting, if that number isn't going to work, we're going to have to go back. We need the City Council to approve our budget," he said. "We really need to make a case to sell this, a good solid case. If we don't, we're going to be doing a solid amount of work in a really short amount of time."

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or mmoretto@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @riocarmine.