Portland schools may face $3M budget cut

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PORTLAND — The School Committee on Wednesday, Oct. 21, will consider a resolution authorizing the superintendent to begin working on a strategy to identify nearly $3 million in potential cuts to the current budget.

The resolution follows an announcement by Gov. John Baldacci that state revenues are expected to be down by $200 million more than originally anticipated this year because of the recession. 

Superintendent James C. Morse Sr. on Tuesday said the School Department has worked closely with state Sen. Justin Alfond to discern the magnitude of the anticipated curtailment in state education funds coming to Portland. Morse said the anticipation of a $3 million cut is the result of an “informed opinion” by Alfond.

Morse said the department must start planning for possible cuts now, rather than waiting for the Legislature to take official action when it reconvenes in January. 

“Now is the time to act,” Morse said. “These numbers are projections, but if we wait until the Legislature acts at the end of January then we as a school system will have no way to get to $3 million.”  

The resolution would require Morse to submit a curtailment strategy to the School Committee by Nov. 18. Early planning and a freeze on nonessential spending, Morse said, will allow the district to begin saving immediately. 

The department has set up a link on its Web site, where residents can submit suggestions about how to handle any cut in state education aid. Morse said he hopes the community will use the “virtual suggestion box” to become an active player in guiding the department.  

“We are at the very beginning stages, so we are very much open to ideas anyone may have,” he said. “Often, we’re seeing the budget from the inside, but the community sees it from the outside. Between the two of those perspectives, we might see things that we hadn’t by looking at the budget separately, so I’m really hoping I’ll get some good feedback.” 

The school district anticipated receiving $14.6 million in funding from the state this year, Finance Director Herbert Hopkins said. 

If the curtailment happens, it would be the second in as many years. Last year, the state cut Portland’s education subsidy by $1.8 million. Then-interim Superintendent Jeanne Whynot-Vickers developed a plan to handle those cuts; her plan included spending freezes, potential teacher furlough days and athletic program cuts, among others. But it was never implemented because of increased funding from the federal government. 

Morse said the strategies used last year will be on the table again this year. “I think it will be similar, but larger,” he said. 

This time around, however, Morse said there is no significant chatter about a second federal stimulus to bail out the school system. 

“I haven’t heard any part of any federal conversation other than the rumor mill,” he said. “… That would be great if we got to March and something happened, but we can’t wait.”

Morse said negotiations have been continuing with school unions, who in the past have opposed furlough days. Meanwhile, all non-essential expenditures will been frozen and an itemized list detailing the non-purchased items and their respective accounts must be submitted to the School Committee with the curtailment strategy. 

The Oct. 21 meeting 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