Portland School Committee chairman seeks reprieve for sports, music programs

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PORTLAND — School Committee Chairman Peter Eglinton said he plans to submit a proposal to trim about $109,000 from next year’s budget that does not directly affect students.

Eglinton said he will propose cutting the School Committee’s contingency fund for contracted services in an effort to avoid making a last-minute decision to cut programming.

His plan, to be presented at a special meeting on Monday, April 26, would preserve programs that were once on the chopping block, including middle and high school sports and kindergarten through 12th-grade orchestra.

“We are trying to stay away from arbitrary budget changes, preferring to look at programming and staffing needs where we have a justification to go one way, rather than another,” Eglinton said.

That proposal, drafted with school finance Chairwoman Kate Snyder, does not guarantee the programs will be spared.

“It could be that other School Committee members have their own ideas,” Eglinton said.

The budget-trimming effort comes on the heels of an April 15 meeting where the City Council’s Finance Committee voted 2-1 to send the budget back to the School Committee to look for more savings to help the city reduce a property tax increase to 1 percent or less.

In its current form, the total city budget, including county taxes, would increase the property tax rate 1.3 percent to $17.97 per $1,000 of valuation, resulting in a $46 increase next year for the owner of a home valued at $200,000.

The $90 million school budget, which eliminates 45 jobs, is projected to increase the property tax rate by 1.2 percent, while the $196 million municipal budget, which results in a net loss of about 12 jobs, would increase taxes by taxes by 1.4 percent.

To reach the goal of a less than 1 percent tax increase, about $400,000 would have to be trimmed from the combined budgets.

Councilor John Anton, who supported the school budget, said the district was not given a specific target for its reduction.

“It was made pretty clear that ($400,000) is not strictly the School Committee’s responsibility,” Anton said. “It wasn’t even a 50-50 job to get below that figure.”

Anton said the Finance Committee recognized the schools’ efforts towards building a responsible, transparent budget. He was particularly impressed with increased efforts towards strategic planning.

“I was comfortable with the number the School Committee came up with,” Anton said. “I would rather have a little margin of error, so if there is a need to make adjustments the School Committee and superintendent are in a better position to do that.”

Eglinton said the $109,000 was added into last year’s budget to leave open the possibility of hiring a second assistant superintendent to help Superintendent James C. Morse Sr. transition into his new job.

Since that position was never filled, Eglinton said only $25,000 was used this year, to offset a cut in state education funding.

The proposal to reduce that line item would allow the School Committee to keep its promise to give directors of middle and high school sports and k-12 orchestra a year to build a plan that increases participation, Eglinton said. 

Both of those programs were initially proposed for either significant cuts or elimination.

Eglinton said the district still has enough money in the current budget to hire an outside consultant to help review those programs. The School Committee will consider authorizing that allocation on April 28.

“We’re doing what we can to be thoughtful and really build some foundation for the future of our schools,” he said. “It’s not an easy task, but it’s one I commend the superintendent and School Committee for their efforts to date.”

The City Council will hold a workshop on the school budget on Monday Council Chambers at City Hall at 5 p.m., followed by a special School Committee meeting at 6 p.m. in Room 209 at City Hall.

A first reading and public hearing on the school budget is slated for 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 27, in council chambers of City Hall. If the council approves the school budget on May 3, a budget referendum will be held on May 11.  

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