Portland school budget elicits little initial public response

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PORTLAND — The first public hearing on the proposed $94.9 million school budget drew few comments from residents Tuesday night.

Four residents spoke about Superintendent of Schools James Morse Sr.’s proposed budget, which is currently under review by the finance committee. Only one resident spoke against the budget and urged School Committee members to reduce staff and find other savings.

The proposed budget is a 3.71 percent increase from the fiscal 2012 budget, following a three-year downward trend in education spending. If approved as proposed, it would require a 3.65 percent rise in local property taxes, or $85 on a home assessed at $250,000.

A second public hearing will begin at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 20, in room 250 of Casco Bay High School, 196 Allen Ave.

During the public hearing at Casco Bay High School, Morse said he reduced his proposed budget to $94.9 million from the nearly $103 million requested by school administrators.

The budget encompasses step increases in teacher salaries, slight rises in health-care costs, makes up for the loss of $2 million in revenue from a federal jobs bill set to be phased out, and includes the first payment on a four-year, $1 million technology loan.

The budget eliminates eight jobs and adds eight others, resulting in no net change in staffing. More than 100 jobs were eliminated between fiscal years 2008 and 2012, a trend Morse said is no longer sustainable without eliminating programs and increasing class sizes.

“Largely, this budget is a sustaining budget,” he said.

Justin Costa, finance committee chairman, said the committee has met four times for budget review. Public hearings are being held earlier in the process this year to allow residents to weigh in before committee members make up their minds about spending, he said.

Steve Rogers, interim principal of Lyman Moore Middle School and a father of three from Portland, praised the proposed budget as balanced and reasonable.

“As a parent, this budget makes me hopeful my child will continue a strong experience in the Portland public schools,” he said.

Rogers said as a taxpayer he is prepared to adjust his budget to accommodate a $7 monthly increase in property taxes to support the schools.

Kathleen Casasa, president of the Portland Education Association, spoke in favor of the budget and said further cuts would “severely hamper” the city’s ability to meet the needs of students. However, she said she is concerned the budget does not include enough funding for special education.

The proposed budget includes $11.6 million for special education, an increase of 6.7 percent over last year.

Resident Erin Chase spoke in support of Morse’s proposal to double enrollment in the district’s pre-kindergarten program. Morse said transitioning to separate morning and afternoon sessions would allow the program to expand to 150 students.

Chase, a school administrator in another district, said the pre-K program at Riverton Elementary has helped her 5-year-old daughter in a variety of ways. She praised the district for its commitment to early intervention as a way to support students and reduce the amount of literacy catch-up needed as they move through the school system.

“I believe every 4-year-old child in our city should have access to pre-K programs in their neighborhood,” Chase said.

Steven Scharf was the one resident who spoke critically of the superintendent’s budget. He said the key issue for him is the proposal to increase the budget at a time when enrollment projections show a decline, adding that staffing patterns should mirror enrollment and be reduced.

“We’re looking to spend $5 million more for 25 less kids. … It’s not logical to me,” he said.

The School Committee is scheduled to vote on the proposed budget on Tuesday, March 27. The budget will be sent to the City Council on April 2 before voters have the final say in a budget validation referendum.

Budget information, including the superintendent’s proposed budget, are available on the School Department website.

Gillian Graham can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter: @grahamgillian.