Portland school finance panel wants budget pain shared by all schools, grades

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PORTLAND — The School Committee on Wednesday, Dec. 2, will hold a public hearing on a plan to cut at least $2.7 million from the current budget.

But the final details of the plan will not be known for another week or two.

The school Finance Committee on Tuesday, Nov. 24, took up the superintendent’s proposal to cut at least $2.7 million from the current budget to meet a statewide curtailment in education funding. The Finance Committee will ultimately make specific recommendations to the full School Committee, which has scheduled a Dec. 16 vote on a curtailment plan.

Last week, the Finance Committee approved a recommendation that could lead to more than $50,000 in transportation savings, but directed the superintendent to meet again with other school administrators to discuss possible inequities in their kindergarten through 12th-grade curtailment strategies.

School Committee member Jaimey Caron, who is also on the Finance Committee, said the recommended transportation cuts were approved last week because the projected savings were time-sensitive.

Transportation Director Kevin Mallory told the committee that the district could save from $45,000 to $70,000 by buying three, seven-passenger vans to transport special education students, rather than paying for taxi cabs, which is the current practice.

“It is far cheaper to do it on our own,” Mallory said in a memo to the Finance Committee. “The vans will also be used in midday situations where large buses have been used in the past, offsetting fuel and maintenance costs.”

To do that, however, the district will have to reallocate $75,000 in capital funds that were earmarked for a new school bus. Caron, the only member to vote against the plan, said that budget maneuver didn’t make sense, since the district recently recommitted itself to updating its aging fleet. 

“To me, I didn’t see how those two plans were integrated,” Caron said. 

Meanwhile, the Finance Committee voted unanimously to ask the superintendent to address inequities in proposed education cuts. The committee did not make a formal recommendation on $1.7 million in cuts to other education programs and departments, which includes a $100,000 cut in substitute teacher and overtime accounts and using $600,000 that had been allocated to repay the city for overspending in 2007.

Superintendent James C. Morse Sr. outlined $3.4 million in potential budget reductions last week in a 79-page report that does not include any staff layoffs. The proposal includes $130,000 in cuts at the city’s 11 elementary schools, $115,000 at four high schools and $50,000 at three middle schools.

Cuts of another $1.7 million are outlined for other programs and departments, including nearly $90,000 from middle school and high school spring sports, $93,000 from human resources and $85,000 from school facilities. Morse also proposed shifting $335,000 in costs to federal No Child Left Behind funding.

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

To draft his curtailment plan, Morse said he sought to cut each school’s budget by 1 percent. Those recommendations were sent to school principals for their input. Instead of approving Morse’s plan to cut $500,000 in K-12 programming, the principals only approved $295,000 in cuts. Some of the schools met the mandate, but many did not, he said.

Caron said the Finance Committee directed Morse to meet separately with high school, middle school and elementary school principals to see if they could all devise a common strategy – cutting the same amount from the same areas – for meeting this year’s curtailment, which may signal larger budget reductions for next year. Caron said the district should avoid cuts at the lower education levels that will require more intervention and remediation later at the upper levels of schools. 

“We don’t want to pass on problems from one level to the next,” Caron said. “To the extent there is inequity in the system, we should be working to correct that. These cuts continue to make it inequitable. That’s not acceptable in my view.”

Morse said that directive will be difficult to follow, because the district is more than five months into its budget and each school has a different policy on ordering supplies. Some teachers order all of their supplies at the start of the school year, which makes it more difficult to find mid-year savings, while others order twice a year or more, making them more susceptible to cuts. Other possible inequities would be targeting cuts for only spring sports, which Morse said was low on his list, but not cutting fall and winter sports. 

“That’s the struggle,” the school chief said. 

Morse said the committee’s directive will not inhibit his ability to meet the statewide curtailment, since the School Committee authorized him to freeze the budget on Oct. 21. 

“The board authorized the spending freeze, which put us in as good of a position as we can be to deal with this curtailment,” he said. 

School Committee Chairman Peter Eglinton acknowledged the committee gave Morse and other administrators an aggressive schedule for developing a curtailment plan. 

“Although the material was impressive in its detail, a number of comments and questions were raised at the Finance Committee meeting that warranted further action by the superintendent and the staff,” Eglinton said. “Given the magnitude of the necessary reductions and the implications for our district, I personally support taking the time to get it right, as long as the schedule allows us to still achieve the overall savings.”

If the School Committee approves the Finance Committee’s recommendation, a full curtailment plan will be presented on Dec. 16. Eglinton said another public hearing may be scheduled, once the additional information is received.

The Dec. 2 meeting and public hearing starts 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