Portland school chief urges tax increase in face of 'depressing' budget scenario

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PORTLAND — A public forum on Wednesday, Jan. 27, will seek to set the tone for the upcoming school budget.

But the initial note will probably be sour, according to Superintendent of Schools James C. Morse Sr., who predicted the city could lose up to $7 million in education funding and may have to eliminate up to 140 jobs, mostly teachers.

“It’s a depressing thought,” Morse said.

Beyond a doom-and-gloom budget scenario, though, Morse said he and state Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, will also try to compel residents to contact legislators and the governor and ask them to raise taxes to deal with the state revenue shortfall.

In addition to public forums, the district will also solicit comments from the public over the Internet. School Committee Chairman Peter Eglinton said those comments will be considered as the Finance Committee works throughout February to draft a budget to present to the full School Committee in March.

“Our greatest challenge, as a community, is responding to the significant cuts in state funding while maintaining a strong, quality school system,” Eglinton said. “Nevertheless, the magnitude of the anticipated cuts will affect everybody in some way.”

Morse said the upcoming budget environment is unlike anything he has ever seen in his two decades as a school administrator. The district is struggling to reduce its current budget by $2.7 million, he said, and the recession continues to drain state coffers ahead of next year’s budget.

Meanwhile, operating costs such as health insurance, fuel and utilities continue to rise. Morse said the $5 million to $7 million in funding Portland stands to lose is twice as much as any other community in the state.

“This is going to be the first time, I think, in modern school history that the budget presented to the School Committee will have to be smaller than the current budget,” Morse said. 

He estimated spending could be as low as it was in 2006.

“There has never been anything like this,” Morse said. “This is a major step backwards.”

So far, no programming or positions have been cut for next year. Morse said he hopes next week’s forum will prepare parents, staff and residents alike for cuts to essential services that will ultimately impact student learning in the classroom.

“I can do the job that is in front me, to cut the school budget significantly,” he said. “But is that a rational approach?”

Morse said he believes it is time for the Legislature to consider new revenue sources and convince Gov. John Baldacci to renege on his pledge not to raise taxes. Morse said he has seen two recessions in his career, one of which was under former Gov. John McKernan, who temporarily raised taxes to minimize the local impacts.

“They made significant cuts,” Morse said. “But they were also smart enough to figure out that temporary tax increases makes sense.”

Morse said he would like to see the state consider allowing service centers like Portland, which provide jobs, infrastructure and tax revenue to outlying communities, to institute a local-option sales tax. He said he also believes the state should reconsider a “snack tax” on junk food, soda and alcohol, or perhaps broaden and increase the 5 percent sales tax by a penny.

Morse said he also hopes to inspire residents to volunteer in their local schools, whether its reading to children or helping them with their homework.

The district has also set up a virtual suggestion box on the school’s Web site, portlandschools.org, for people to offer suggestions and opinions about the upcoming budget.

The Jan. 27 forum is at 7 p.m. in the Deering High School gym.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or [email protected]