Portland school chief outlines more than $3M in potential budget cuts

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PORTLAND — Superintendent of Schools James C. Morse Sr. is scheduled on Wednesday, Nov. 18, to present his recommendations for dealing with a possible $2.7 million cut in state education funding.

Morse’s plan, released late Tuesday morning, is expected to be referred to the School Finance Committee, which will meet on Nov. 24. That committee is expected to make a recommendation to the full School Committee, which could take up the plan on Dec. 2. 

The curtailment plan actually outlines $3.3 million in cuts, because it takes into account the potential loss of other revenue in addition to the threatened state curtailment, which would be enacted during the current budget season. The district’s current budget is built on the expectation it would receive $14.6 million in state funding this year.

Cuts are recommended in all areas of the school budget, but do not include layoffs, since the School Department could not eliminate positions until the state Legislature adopts a curtailment plan. State law also requires a 90-day notice for layoffs, which, along with severance packages, would limit the total savings. 

“Thus, for all the disruption it would cause to the education of our students and the lives of our employees, little is gained (by layoffs),” Morse said in a summary of the plan. 

The city’s 11 elementary schools could face more than $130,000 in cuts, well below the target of nearly $190,000. East End Community School and Clifford Elementary School would lose the most, at nearly $26,000 and $23,000, respectively. The five-student Cliff Island school would lose about $350. 

Nearly $115,000 in cuts have been outlined in the city’s four high schools, with Deering High School standing to lose $50,000 and Portland High School being eyed for a $33,000 cut. Casco Bay High School is targeted for more than $13,000 in cuts. 

The city’s three middle school could lose more than $50,000, with Lyman Moore facing the largest cut of more than $25,500. 

“It would be too easy to dismiss the suggested cuts as ‘fat’ in the 2009-2010 budget; nothing could be further from the truth,” Morse said. “No cut can be made without recognizing that there is an impact on students.”

Meanwhile, $1.7 million in cuts are outlined in other programs and departments, including nearly $90,000 in cuts to middle school and high school spring sports; $93,000 in cuts to human resources, and $85,000 in cuts to building maintenance.

Morse is also proposing to use $600,000 that has been budgeted to repay the city for the School Department’s 2007 budget over-run and shift $335,000 in costs to federal No Child Left Behind funding. 

Also, the district could save $400,000 by implementing two furlough days.

Morse included a confidence ranking for each proposed cut or savings area. While expressing complete confidence in many targeted areas, he had little confidence in others, like savings from heating fuel and furlough days. The rankings assume that no other budget issues or unexpected expenses will arise between now and the end of the fiscal year, he said. 

Even with the outlined cuts, Morse did not rule out the possibility that the district may have to turn to city coffers for help.

“Regardless of how hard we work to achieve the desired outcome of matching revenue with expenditures, we may find ourselves in the unenviable position of seeking financial support from the city’s fund balance,” he said. 

School Committee Chairman Peter Eglinton said it is unlikely that the committee will discuss the recommendations in detail at Wednesday’s meeting, which will also feature a presentation from Jim Rier, the state Education Department expert on the formula used to distribute education funding to school districts throughout the state. Instead, the committee will be asked to refer the action plan to its finance subcommittee for more in-depth analysis. 

On Oct. 21, the committee passed a resolution giving Morse a Nov. 18 deadline to draft a plan to deal with the expected $2.7 million loss of state funding. The resolution followed an announcement by Gov. John Baldacci that state revenues are expected to be down by $200 million more than originally anticipated this year because of the recession.

An aggressive schedule for the plan was implemented, because any cut in education funding would occur late in the current budget year, leaving the district with few options for balancing its budget.

The state cut $1.8 million from Portland’s education funding last year. Then-interim Superintendent Jeanne Whynot-Vickers developed a plan to handle those cuts, including spending freezes, potential teacher furlough days and athletic program cuts, among others. But it was never implemented because increased funding was received from the federal government.

Wednesday’s School Committee meeting is scheduled to start at 7 p.m. in room 250 of Casco Bay High School, 196 Allen Ave.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net