Portland school budget proposal gets chilly reaction from City Council

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PORTLAND — The City Council sent the School Board’s proposed $94.9 million budget for fiscal 2013 to the finance committee Monday night with little response to school officials’ pleas for increased investment in education.

Some councilors, including finance committee member John Coyne, have said that the proposed school budget, which includes a $5 million increase over this year’s spending and a 3.7 percent hike in property taxes, is a tough sell.

The School Board asserts that after several years of reduced budgets and cuts of roughly 100 jobs, it is time for the city to emphasize its commitment to education. Board Chairwoman Kate Snyder, School Board finance committee Chairman Justin Costa, and Superintendent of Schools James C. Morse Sr. took that argument to the council Monday.

“I feel we’ve reflected the realities of the times,” reducing budgets and staff to keep taxes down after financial mismanagement left the system $2.5 million short in 2007, followed by the nationwide economic meltdown the next year, Snyder said.

“I believe we’re in a much better place today than we were last year or the year before,” she said, repeating a mantra that she has adopted publicly since Morse first presented his budget recommendations in March. This year’s budget process, she said, “feels like a real transition away from crisis.”

Still, the proposed budget has not been greeted warmly by city councilors.

“Here’s the question that everybody asks: How can we increase the school budget by $5 million?” Snyder said.

The proposed budget renews the city’s dedication to making its schools a community anchor that can attract and retain new residents – or, if marginalized, could keep people away – she said. It maintains but does not add to staff levels, with a handful of eliminated positions replaced by others.

The proposed budget also allows investment in technology, Snyder said. “The tech situation is as bad as the facility problem at (deteriorating Fred P.) Hall school,” she said.

The proposed budget supports expanded pre-kindergarten services, which Morse said has received the most vocal support from parents during School Board budget discussions, and may be linked to improving student performance in neighborhoods like Riverton.

It includes $70,000 to expand the city’s adult education English as a Second Language program, which has lost $140,000 in state funding in recent years, Morse said. Adding some of that funding back to the budget would cut the waiting list for ESL classes in half, he said.

Morse also spoke in support of continued funding for Portland High School’s Latin program, saying it should be “a point of pride” that nearly 500 students at the school are studying the “dead language” that also forms the backbone of the legal and medical vocabulary.

The council finance committee will take up the city and school budgets in a meeting on Wednesday, April 25 at 5:30 p.m. The full council will hold a workshop to discuss budgets on Monday, April 30, at 5:30 p.m. in the council chambers at city hall, followed by a special city council meeting to vote on the school budget at 7 p.m. in the same room. Members of the public will have opportunities to voice their opinions at those meetings, finance committee Chairman John Anton said.

The Wednesday meeting will also be the first opportunity for the public to comment on the city’s looming general assistance crunch, Health and Human Services Director Doug Gardner said.

Gardner said the city would have to move forward expecting that the state will limit general assistance payments for housing to nine months, reduce maximum monthly assistance by 10 percent, and reduce the reimbursement rate for municipal general assistance spending from 90 percent to 85 percent.

The state’s baseline reimbursement rate is 50 percent, and the higher rate kicks in only after municipal spending reaches a set point. Still, the reduction in the reimbursement rate will represent “several hundred thousands in unreimbursed expenses,” Gardner said.

Andrew Cullen can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 of at acullen@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @ACullenFore.