No-tax-hike scenario sets school budget scene in South Portland

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SOUTH PORTLAND — School Board members on Monday got their first look at a budget proposal that creates no tax increases, but requires cuts totalling $911,000 and possibly layoffs.

That proposal, however, is not what Superintendent of Schools Suzanne Godin ultimately would like the board to OK. Her approach, she said, is to show the board where to start deliberations. 

Godin said she will ultimately propose a budget with something close to a 2.2 percent tax rate increase. At Monday’s meeting she gave a rough sketch of that proposal and promised to provide a more detailed version soon.

“We’ve showed you what a zero-percent budget increase would look like; we’ve also showed you what a 2.2 percent increase would look like,” she said. “That gives you some room to work with.”

The no-tax-increase budget for fiscal 2013 would require cutting $911,400 from current spending. Godin said those cuts could take the form of reductions in funding for substitute teachers, textbooks, libraries and police coverage at events.

It could also result in 16 positions being eliminated, including a high school science teacher, two library clerks, a middle school guidance counselor and more. Some of those reductions would come via resignations and attrition, but others could require layoffs. 

The proposed, but as-yet unwritten, 2.2 percent tax-hike version of the budget would reinstate some, but not all, of the funds cut in a zero-based version.

Rafe Forland, the district’s finance director, said a 2.2 percent increase would mean roughly 15 cents added to the school tax rate. This year, the town charged $16.10 for every $1,000 of assessed property value. Of that, the School Department received $10.15.

According to Assessor Elizabeth Sawyer, the median assessed value for homes in South Portland is $195,000. So for the average homeowner, a 15-cent school tax rate hike would result in a tax increase of $29.25 a year before the municipal tax bite is calculated.

Despite allaying many of the cuts that would be made necessary by a zero-based budget, the 2.2 percent version wouldn’t come without any loss. Four positions – a warehouse clerk, two middle school library clerks and a high school science teacher – could still be on the chopping block.

But, for now at least, those cuts remain hypothetical until Godin and other administrators put together their actual budget proposal.

“We anticipate needing to look at staffing, needing to look at athletics, having to look at proposals a little bit deeper,” Godin said Monday. 

Councilors seemed to agree with Godin that the zero-based budget would be unacceptable.

“The zero percent budget is not really realistic in that it requires us to go backward in terms of the quality of education we’re providing,” board member Jeffrey Selser said in a Wednesday interview. “We don’t want to do that in South Portland.”

Selser said he’d likely support some variant of the rough 2.2 percent increase budget proposal Godin presented Monday. 

On the revenue side, the state subsidy to South Portland is expected to increase by about $980,000 to a total of $3.1 million. But Godin said she isn’t confident that projection will hold when it comes time for the state to cut a check.

“We have all heard the issues around MaineCare funding and DHHS,” she said. “The (education) commissioner has been very clear that he anticipates there will be cuts to funding in fiscal year 2013 at the state level.”

The district also won’t benefit from federal Jobs Bill stimulus money or American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds, as it has the last few years. That’s a $1.59 million drop in revenue. Also gone is the $200,000 in state MaineCare revenue.

To attempt to fill the gap, the district will again look to its surplus funds. It predicts a $1.8 million budget surplus at the end of this fiscal year, and Godin is suggesting allocating $1 million of that to next year’s budget.

The district has allocated $1.2 million from budget surplus to its beginning balance for the past three years, which has drawn criticism.

South Portland’s finance director, Greg L’Heureux has also urged the School Board to wean itself off surplus spending. In a meeting in February, he told board members that if they continued at the current rate, there will be no unassigned savings left by fiscal year 2014.

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