Portland school superintendent presents 2013 budget proposal

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PORTLAND — The process of hammering out a 2013 school budget began in earnest Tuesday night as Superintendent James Morse presented a proposed budget of nearly $95 million, up 3.71 percent from 2012, to the school board at Casco Bay High School.

The board accepted Morse’s proposal, sending the preliminary budget figures to their finance committee. Between now and May, that committee, the school board as a whole, the City Council’s finance committee and entire council will investigate, tease and fine-tune the school budget before going to a voters’ referendum for final approval.

Morse’s recommended $94,948,537 budget represents a 3.65 percent increase in city taxes over the 2012 budget, or $85 on a $250,000 house, Morse said. Requests from school administrators around the district had totaled more than $102 million and included 72 new positions before Morse slimmed the numbers down for his proposal.

The superintendent’s budget encompasses step increases in teacher salaries, slight rises in health care costs, makes up for the loss of $2 million in revenue from a federal jobs bill set to be phased out, and includes the first payment on a four-year, $1 million technology loan.

Replacing and upgrading technology is essential to student achievement, Morse said, noting that the computers and equipment that students use is in many cases obsolete or nearly so.

The city’s elementary school buildings also need drastic improvement, and in the case of Hall elementary, should be replaced entirely, Morse said.

At Hall, Morse said, “there are sprinklers sprinkling, smells smelling, walls wet.”

“We as citizens of Portland need to own that problem and we need to face it,” he said. “Now is the time, this is the year, to take that step necessary to put together a capital gains plan.”

Even with the emphasis on infrastructure and equipment, Morse’s proposal included a $200,000 cut in technology spending, he said, as well as cuts to school board expenses, leases, and contracted services – about $440,000 in all.

While his proposal would add only about a dozen jobs – an occupational therapist, drivers, a food manager and a secretary among them– while cutting eight grant funded teaching and ed tech positions, Morse warned that staff reductions over recent years cannot continue without having to also cut programming. The system has lost more than 100 positions in the last five years, he said.

Morse’s proposed budget contained few surprises, said school board finance committee chairman Justin Costa.

“I think the bottom line is the superintendent has proposed a budget that is a historically acceptable increase,” he said.

For Kate Snyder, board chairwoman, the Tuesday overview was too soon to pass judgement.

“There’s a lot of ups and downs there that we need to get our heads around,” she said. 

One item raised questions for Snyder: a $480,000 spending displacement that Morse terms “avoided costs.” The practice said would allow the school district to pay for paper, custodial supplies and maintenance projects before the end of the year using money from the 2012 budget, but stockpile the products until next year, he said.

Such a method “creates a hiccup” in future budgets, Snyder said. Because the $480,000 wouldn’t be reflected in the 2013 budget, a sudden jump of almost a half million dollars the next year to pay for such items could be difficult to explain or justify, she said.

Avoided costs are a “management technique I would like to know more about” before approving, Snyder said.

Morse’s broad-reaching presentation touched on many of the same issues as Snyder’s own State of the Schools address to the City Council on Monday. Snyder’s presentation was the first such address since it was mandated by changes to the city charter made in 2010.

Both discussed improving student achievement at the Riverton and East End Community schools and the district’s arrival on steady financial footing after severe overspending in 2007 and, as Snyder said, “several deficiencies in our audit reports” since then.

Andrew Cullen can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: ACullenFore.