Portland schools await more state budget cuts

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PORTLAND — The School Committee may have to consider implementing all $3.4 million in cuts identified by the superintendent of schools to cope with the mid-budget curtailment of state education funds.

On Friday, Nov. 20, Gov. John Baldacci issued an executive order to cut $63 million from the state budget, nearly $38.1 million of which would come from the state’s general purpose aid to schools. Portland’s current, $91.3 million budget is built on the expectation of receiving $14.6 million in state aid. 

In October, the School Committee directed the superintendent to plan for an estimated $2.7 million cut in state education funding, which is 3.2 percent of the budget.  

Although the reduction to Portland’s aid came in as estimated, Superintendent James C. Morse Sr. said the state is again revising its revenue projections. State officials, Morse said, predict that revenues could be down as much as $400 million, $200 million more than factored into the governor’s curtailment order. 

“This puts us right back in the same boat we were in before,” Morse said. “It’s a waiting game.”

Timing is running out for schools, Morse said, because the longer it takes to get an accurate curtailment figure from the state, the more difficult it will be for schools to make cuts. 

“Augusta seems to think it has lots of time to make those determinations, where school systems across the state don’t have much time,” Morse said. “We have about seven months left of this budget and at some point we need to know in relatively fast fashion what the impact is going to be.”

Morse 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 using $600,000 that was budgeted to repay the city for overspending by the School Department in 2007 and shifting $335,000 in costs to federal No Child Left Behind funding.

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

Morse said the school Finance Committee, which was scheduled to meet Tuesday, Nov. 24, will have to seriously consider all of his proposed $3.4 million budget reduction methods, including those he is most uncomfortable with, like the furlough days. Even with these reductions, Morse said the schools may have to turn to the city for help. 

Meanwhile, the school budget problems will likely continue into next year. School Committee Chairman Peter Eglinton said Portland could have to reduce the budget by $10 million next year. 

Eglinton said he is optimistic, from his discussions with the City Council’s Finance Committee, that city would be a strong partner for the schools. However, Eglinton said dealing with this large a budget reduction will ultimately lead to two difficult areas of discussion: increasing the local tax rate and using city funds to offset a budget deficit.

“We wouldn’t intentionally use (the city’s fund balance), but it might go down,” Eglinton said. “It wouldn’t be because of a budget deficit through poor management, but because of a special economic condition – using that (fund balance) to smooth out the shock to the system.”

The school Finance Committee scheduled a public hearing from 7-8 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 24, in Room 250 of Casco Bay High School, 196 Allen Ave. After the hearing, the panel will meet  in Room 321 to discuss and vote on a specific set of recommendations for the full School Committee to consider.

The School Committee will likely deliberate on budget reductions on Dec. 2.   

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