Proposed Portland school budget cuts 81 jobs, increases taxes

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PORTLAND — The superintendent’s proposed budget would eliminate nearly 81 positions next year, despite an almost 4-percent increase proposed in local property taxes.

The final number of layoffs, however, will depend on the number of qualified school employees who take advantage of a retirement incentive being offered by the district.

Superintendent James Morse said that, as of Feb. 28, 40 employees have agreed to retire in exchange for payments of between $10,000 and $20,000.

Morse said he predicts the retirements will save the district about $1.2 million next year, since some of those employees would need to be replaced, but at a lesser cost.

“The retirement incentive was very successful,” he said.

Age- and experience-eligible employees still have until March 15 to take advantage of the incentive, which requires the final endorsement of the School Board. 

The staffing cuts are designed to help the district cope with a $6 million reduction in state and federal education funds.

The cuts from the local budget include 6.25 administrators, 25.4 teachers, 8.5 ed techs and five support staff. Cuts to grant-funded positions include 6.1 teachers and 29.5 ed techs.

“It was very daunting,” Morse said. “It was a very difficult budget to put together.”

The loss of revenue comes at a time when costs are on the rise.

Morse said next year’s budget contains $800,000 increase in health-care premiums, $250,000 in contributions to the Maine State Retirement System and more than $900,000 in step increases for the district’s four unions.

“The unions have been working very closely with me to figure out a way to mitigate that increase,” Morse said.

Morse’s proposed $92.7 million budget is about $2.7 million larger than the current budget and would increase local property taxes by nearly 4 percent. 

While the proposed budget includes significant cuts, Morse said it increases the district’s emphasis on early childhood and kindergarten through 12th-grade education.

To make that investment, however, Morse has proposed a nearly $340,000 reduction in the Adult Education budget.

The savings come from using hourly employees rather than certified instructors, Morse said. The move will reduce salary and benefit costs to the district, while maintaining instructional time, he said.

Other funding was freed up by cutting ed techs.

“The cuts were way too deep in those areas,” Morse said. “But I have a strong personal belief that class sizes need to be kept reasonable. When you protect class sizes, it pushes you into other areas of the budget.”

Additional investments are also proposed to the district’s preschool program, K-2 literacy, elementary world language, 6th-8th grade math instruction, high schools, maintenance and technology.

“Those are the priorities the school district set when I came here, and those are the priorities I’m trying to protect,” he said.

The exact breakdown of those increases, however, will not be available for another week or so, Morse said.

The Finance Committee was scheduled to meet on Tuesday, March 8, to review the staffing changes proposed in Morse’s budget.

A public hearing on the superintendent’s budget will take place on March 15 from 7-8 p.m. in Room 250 of Casco Bay High School, 196 Allen Ave.

Feedback is also being collected through an online survey and comment section on the budget section on the Portland Schools website.

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

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