South Portland council, School Board seek common ground
SOUTH PORTLAND — City councilors and School Board members discussed preliminary budget items Wednesday night, many maintaining a grim and uncertain outlook for state aid.
"You know, we say every year, 'This is going to be a tough budget year'; frankly, I am more concerned about the budget this year than I was about Paleski," Mayor Linda Cohen said of the initiative led by Carol Paleski in the early 2000s that threatened to reduce state funding of school districts to 1 percent of total property valuation.
Much of the uncertainty arrived with the re-election of Republican Gov. Paul LePage, City Manager Jim Gailey told the city and school officials, who met at City Hall in the first of several joint workshops on the fiscal year 2016 budget. "I think we all know what the administration has attempted to do, and I don't think that will change in January."
Health insurance costs for both the city and the School Department are also on the rise; the city anticipates an increase of about 3 percent and the school district, between 8 and 13 percent.
Aspects of the budget that Superintendent of Schools Suzanne Godin said she wants to improve include the district's maintenance fund: approximately $50,000 for eight school buildings, a total Godin referred to as "abysmal."
Complicating budgetary matters and likely contributing to a future depletion of city and district resources is the rising number of homeless students entering the district.
Almost halfway through the school year, the district has already surpassed its total number of registered homeless students from last year, 76, Assistant Superintendent Kathryn Germani said.
Spillover from Portland family shelters and housing has forced families to seek affordable housing in South Portland hotels that contract with Portland shelters. Many of the elementary-age students who relocate attend Skillin Elementary School, Germani said, a shift significant enough to "necessitate an additional staff member."
Additional funds provided to students who are homeless, including free or reduced lunches, are supplemented through state and federal monies, such as Title 1 federal funding.
The round-table discussion in City Council Chambers represented a concerted effort to collaborate. Cohen solidified that effort by noting the city's intent to hire a sustainability coordinator.
"We want to share this person, share the cost, share the duties with the schools," she said.
As the city and possibly the School Department move toward more energy-efficient measures in their buildings, collaborating on the measures could benefit both parties, Cohen said: "We should be doing it together. Let's share money where we can. (This year) we better be ready for every place we can save money."
But the spirit of cooperation and collaboration fizzled somewhat as the meeting drew to a close, when Councilors Tom Blake and Melissa Linscott brought up the failing grade that Khaler Elementary School received last year from the New England Common Assessment Program.
Blake reported having to field calls from concerned or dissatisfied parents contemplating moving their children out of the district. Godin defended the school, stating that it was "one grade" and that the district is successfully combating the poor assessment with a comprehensive plan and a $1.6 million federal improvement grant.
Linscott, who sends her children to private schools, said "It has become very apparent to me the difference between private and public schools. ... I feel very strongly that our students deserve more."
School Board student representative Gabby Ferrell, a senior at South Portland High School, came to the School Department's defense. "I don't see the walls crumbling before me," Ferrell said. "I don't see a failing school system when I walk through the doors."
The next joint meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m., Monday, Jan. 14, 2015, in council chambers.