Portland school budget could grow $16M in 4 years; $46M needed for 'dilapidated' buildings

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PORTLAND — School Department spending could increase more than $16 million over the next four years under a proposed new multi-year budget.

The schools will be moving to the multi-year budget in 2013, abandoning the year-to-year budget model traditionally used by Maine school districts and municipalities.

Multi-year budgeting is supposed to allow school administrators to better prepare for future costs, including upgrades to infrastructure, although some aspects of the budget would still have to be approved every year.

The preliminary budget proposal by Superintendent James C. Morse Sr. includes a $7 million increase for next year, from the current $89.4 million to $96.7 million, which would mean a 6.41 percent increase in taxes. The increases represent additional funds for special education and behavioral intervention programs, and for technology such as laptop computers and iPads.

Those increases are projected to continue each year as part of the multi-year budget. Projections out to 2016 extend the department’s annual budget to $105 million.

All of the increases would have to first be approved by the School Board, then by the City Council.

Only a portion of the increases would pay for a proposed $46 million in capital improvements at six of the city’s elementary schools, proposed to begin in fiscal 2013. The remainder of those costs would be borrowed.

“These facilities are dilapidated, do not meet the academic needs of our students and pose serious safety issues,” Morse said in a memo to the School Board last week.

Hall School is scheduled for replacement, and Lyseth, Longfellow, Presumpscot and Reiche schools are listed as most in need of repairs and additional space.

In addition to the older buildings, the plans include expansion of the new Ocean Avenue school to “accommodate any displaced students.”

The memo includes plans for eight bond issues, subject to City Council approval, between 2013 and 2020 to pay for the construction.

“Multi-year budgeting will encourage a more policy-oriented budget process and better allow allocation of limited resources to achieve strategic objectives, as it facilitates the integration of financial and strategic planning,” Morse’s memo said.

He cited Jack Elementary School, which was torn down in 2001 because of mold issues and other safety concerns, as a warning of what could happen if the city does not take action on its elementary schools.

“We learned from Jack Elementary that if deferred maintenance is allowed to continue too long, we could end up demolishing a building while having to continue to pay the debt service related to late upgrades to the facility,” Morse said.

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or eparkhurst@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @emilyparkhurst.

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