Portland School Committee to vote on $92M budget

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More state aid headed to Portland

PORTLAND — The School Committee will vote Wednesday, April 1, on a more than $91 million budget proposed for next year.

Prior to the vote, however, the committee must resolve two remaining issues: whether to budget $100,000 for an assistant superintendent to oversee the district’s high schools and whether to spend $50,000 for a world language coordinator. 

Committee member Kate Snyder said the Finance Committee, which she leads, voted last week to recommend the full School Committee reallocate the $100,000 for an additional superintendent from the central office budget to the School Committee. 

Snyder said the move would ensure incoming Superintendent James Morse, who starts July 1, would have additional resources to run the district. Reallocating the line item, however, would allow the School Committee to have a say in how that money is spent.

“That way, the School Committee can be part of the decision-making,” Snyder said.

The recommendation to add $50,000 for a foreign language coordinator is an attempt to begin phasing a world language curriculum back into the district.

A Foreign Language Task Force was formed last year to look at reinstating the programming that was cut from the budget several years ago. The group met over the summer and presented the School Committee with several options.

Snyder said hiring a coordinator will allow the School Department to develop and roll out a meaningful curriculum, while allowing the public ample opportunity to comment. If approved, the committee would probably move to fully fund the program next year, she said. 

Meanwhile, it appears as though the School Department will receive an additional $2.64 million in state education aid next year.  Exact funding levels, however, will not be known until the Legislature approaches the budget in late May or June. 

Interim Superintendent Jeanne Whynot-Vickers said Portland appears to be benefiting from a slower decline in student enrollment than other districts in the state and a slower growth in property values. The projected increase is the result of federal stimulus dollars being funneled through the state. 

If the preliminary figures hold, Portland would receive $17.6 million, or 17.7 percent more in state education funds than the current $14.9 million.

Whynot-Vickers said the School Committee would ultimately make the decision about whether to spend the increased revenue, or use it to reduce local tax bite. 

At a March 25 budget hearing, Rebecca Norling spoke out against two planned staff reductions to the multilingual program at Hall Elementary School. Norling said that while the number of English Language Learners at the school isn’t very large, the students’ needs are diverse, since some don’t know any English, while others are borderline mainstream.  

“I’m just shocked these cuts are happening at the same time,” Norling said. “I can’t understand the logic.”

Resident Steven Scharf urged the committee to make additional cuts, especially in administration. 

“We need to reduce this budget,” Scharf said, advocating for a flat budget. “We need to reduce the tax burden on the people of Portland.”

Finance Committee Chairwoman Snyder signaled that the School Committee may use any additional revenue from the state to offset local property tax. 

“These are unusual times,” Snyder said. “The call for a zero-percent increase in local tax burden isn’t something I have taken lightly.”

The proposed $91.2 million budget is currently $1.7 million, or 1.9 percent, larger than the current budget of $89.5 million.

Whynot-Vickers said that if the state figures hold firm and if the committee doesn’t increase spending, the school’s share of the local tax rate would actually decrease. 

If passed, the school budget will be forwarded to the City Council, which sets the bottom line for school spending. The council is scheduled to vote on school budget on May 4. 

A public referendum on the school budget is scheduled for May 14. 

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