Portland School Committee seeks its own CIP for facilities needs

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PORTLAND — The School Committee is lobbying the City Council to create an account separate from the city’s for funding school facility improvements.

School facility improvements are now included in a single line item in the city’s Capital Improvement Plan, a $10 million allocation typically funded through bonds.

But school officials would like to create a new account for their funds, which would be used to fund a separate CIP.

To do that, however, would require the approval of the City Council.

“There is a separate process that we, by no means, can dictate,” School Committee Chairman Peter Eglinton said. “From my perspective, it’s a responsible step and it’s a responsible management tool.”

Eglinton said having a designated account in the school budget will allow the district to save fiscal year surpluses, proceeds from facility sales and budget appropriations for the strict purpose of addressing capital improvements.

“It would allow the school district to fund an account that would exist over time, rather than a single-year line item,” he said. “The existing CIP process is less certain.”

The School Committee on Oct. 20 voted unanimously to allow Eglinton and Superintendent James C. Morse Sr. to seek permission for the new account.

Recent facilities studies indicate there are nearly $80 million in unmet facility needs in the district. About $23 million is needed to address inequities among elementary schools in the district.

Examples of inadequate facilities include Lyseth Elementary School, which uses the gym as a cafeteria; Reiche Elementary School, which does not have any internal walls; and Hall Elementary School, a World War II-era building designed for returning troops.

In a memo circulated to councilors on Monday, school officials point to the former Jack Elementary School as an example of the effect of long-term, deferred maintenance.

“We learned from Jack Elementary that if deferred maintenance is allowed to continue too long, we could end up demolishing a building while having to continue to pay the debt service related to late upgrades to the facility,” the memo said.

“I hope the folks on the City Council receive this in the spirit it is given, which is that of a responsible step to start working as a team to do the right thing,” committee member Ed Bryant said on Oct. 20.

The idea for a school reserve account has been around for several years, especially when the district incurred a $2 million budget shortfall in 2007 and relied on city reserve funds to balance its books.

Committee member Jaimey Caron, who leads the facilities subcommittee, said the proposal will not immediately address facilities needs. However, a budget surplus from last year should begin laying the groundwork to deal with some those issues, he said.

“It’s one thing to create this vehicle, but it’s an other thing to fund it,” Caron said.

Eglinton said budget surpluses could be one potential source of funding, but others may be needed.

“We look forward to engaging the City Council on ways to address our significant facility needs over time,” he said.

The council would still retain some element of control over the funding, since it would need to approve all withdrawals.

“This isn’t an account the School Committee can dip into at will,” Morse said.

The City Council Finance Committee is scheduled to meet Thursday, Oct. 28, at 5:30 p.m. in Room 209 at City Hall to discuss the proposed 2010 CIP budget.

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

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