Portland School Board OKs $89.6M budget that cuts jobs, increases taxes

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PORTLAND — The School Board on Tuesday night unanimously approved a nearly $89.6 million budget. 

The spending plan for fiscal 2012 is about $360,000 smaller than the current budget. But the School Department’s share of local property taxes is expected to increase by about 2.79 percent, since the district next year expects to lose millions in state and federal funding. 

The school budget eliminates 31.5 locally funded jobs and 35.6 grant-funded positions. 

The spending plan will be turned over on Monday to the City Council, which sets the bottom line for school spending. The council’s Finance Committee is expected to review the budget on Tuesday and hold a public hearing on Wednesday.

The board’s budget reinstates eight of the 9.5 contracted teaching positions for Portland Adult Education that were originally slated to be cut by Superintendent James C. Morse Sr., who did not attend Tuesday’s meeting.

The budget makes about $3.7 million in cuts and $1.6 million in additions originally recommended in Morse’s $92.7 million budget proposal. It also reflects a savings of about $1.5 million expected from 43 teacher retirements.

Although most of the adult ed cuts were reinstated, board members said they were not happy with either the budget or the process. Their mood was soured after being told that administrators had made a $250,000 error that had to be addressed. 

Chief Academic Officer David Galin said administrators neglected to budget money to fill five of the 40 positions that opened up when the district offered an early retirement incentive.

The disclosure came on the heels of the district’s approval of a new three-year contract with teachers, which was expected to save the district more than $700,000 in next year’s budget.

Board members were prepared to reinstate a variety of cuts with the money saved from the teachers contract.

But those plans were derailed when administrators said the five positions had to be reinstated.

“It’s very challenging to have something come before us at the 11th hour,” Chairwoman Kate Snyder said.

Board members also had to grapple with the expectation that the City Council would not support using $1.2 million in reserve funds to offset the loss of about $6 million in federal and state revenue.

Finance Committee Chairman Jaimey Caron said councilors are concerned the practice could create future budget problems and have a negative impact on the city’s bond rating.

“There seems to be little support for $1.2 million,” Caron said.

The board ultimately used the $720,000 in savings from the teachers contract to lower the reliance on the fund balance to $480,000.

It also restored the five eliminated positions – three teachers at Portland Arts and Technology High School, a Peaks Island custodian and a high school English language teacher – at a cost of $250,000.

Board members repeatedly expressed their disappointment with the budget and the process.

Marnie Morrione said she came to the meeting with the hope of restoring positions, but had to resist the urge make additions to the budget.

“The main thing for me right now is just the feeling a little bit like when you get kicked in the gut,” Morrione said. “I feel like that’s what happened tonight.”

Ed Bryan said the situation highlights the need to start the budgeting process earlier and for the board to receive better reports from its staff.

“We’re seeing deep cuts,” Bryan said. “It’s going to hit the classrooms. It’s going to affect people’s lives.”

Although some board members wanted to add two new teaching positions to expand offerings at Casco Bay High School next fall and hire a grant writer, Caron implored the board to put on the brakes.

“I think we’re at the limit of what we can reasonably expected from the council,” Caron said. 

Teachers contract

In other business, the board unanimously approved a three-year contract with the Portland Education Association, which represents teachers.

Among other things, the contract extends the school year to 180 student days from 175.

Teachers agreed to give up one professional development day, two personal days and work an additional two days at no cost to the district.

The contract will freeze teacher pay and benefits through fiscal 2012. Base salaries will also be frozen through 2013, followed by a 3 percent raise in 2014.

Beginning next fall, the contract will limit professional development raises. The minimum time between so-called lane changes will increase from three to four years. That is expected to reduce costs by more than a third, from $160,000 this year to about $50,000.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings.