Portland schools to consider $137K in budget cuts

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PORTLAND — The School Committee will meet on Tuesday, April 28, to decide how to reduce next year’s proposed budget by more than $137,000.

The district was asked by the City Council’s finance subcommittee April 14 to further reduce its $91.4 million budget, which eliminates 17 jobs and already reduces the local tax burden by about $880,000, or 1.3 percent. 

Interim Superintendent of Schools Jeanne Whynot-Vickers proposed meeting the council directive by trimming money budgeted for dental benefits by $27,000 and increasing projected food service revenues by $110,500.

School Committee Chairman Peter Eglinton said he was reluctant to support the proposal until he heard from other committee members, who may have other ideas about how to trim the budget.

“Until we meet as a full School Committee,” Eglinton said, “I cannot predict whether we will endorse such a plan or how we will achieve it.”

In March, the school finance subcommittee was able to trim $832,000 from the proposed budget, mostly because health insurance premiums came in $500,000 lower than expected. 

“From my perspective, it is important for us to understand the impacts of any cuts we make and to avoid blindly reducing any area just because it would achieve a certain amount of savings,” Eglinton said. 

Although he said he looks forward to getting more details, he said the areas targeted for this reduction seem to be ones where the School Department has now received more information to better predict next year’s costs.

If that’s the case, Eglinton said, the committee should be able to move forward with a spending plan that will not impact education, while also taking a step toward restoring the elementary foreign language program and earmarking $100,000 for additional support for incoming Superintendent James Morse, who starts July 1. 

Although the proposed school budget reduces local taxes, Eglinton said he hopes to be able to help the city meet its goal of a 0 percent tax increase.

“Any additional efforts to reduce the city’s impact would presumably result in even more support from voters who are otherwise hit hard in this difficult economy,” he said. Portland residents will vote on the school budget on May 12.  

This is an unusual position for the School Department, which is coming off two years of budget deficits totaling more than $2 million. The department still owes $1.2 million to the city’s reserve account, which was tapped to balance the previous two budgets. 

There is $600,000 allocated for that balance in next year’s budget. And, if a projected $700,000 surplus in the current budget come to fruition, Eglinton said the district may be able to pay the remaining balance of $600,000 at the end of the fiscal year with some money to spare. 

“I would be very supportive of replenishing our fund balance, because it has taken up too much of our attention lately,” he said. “We need to be focusing on education here in Portland.”

The City Council is scheduled to vote on the school budget on May 4 before sending the budget to the public referendum.

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