Proposed South Portland school budget cuts fuel debate

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Public outcry has begun over program and staff cuts proposed in next year’s school budget.

The nearly $46 million spending proposal includes the elimination of ninth- and 10th-grade boys and girls soccer, an elementary literacy teacher, the completion coordinator at South Portland High School, a Maine Learning and Technology Initiative teacher, the replacement of five library clerks with two technology ed-tech positions, and a change in the status of fifth-grade band that would make it an extracurricular divided between the middle schools.

Proposed staff additions include three new athletic coaches for boys’ and girls’ lacrosse and field hockey, and two new ed-tech positions.

When Superintendent of Schools Suzanne Godin unveiled the budget on March 9, she spoke candidly about the impact many of the cuts would have on student growth and opportunity.

With regard to the completion coordinator position, Godin told the School Board “I can’t say strongly enough how concerned we are about the impact of losing this position … I believe it will cause severe impact on students.”

The superintendent said the only reason for the decision was the need to hit a target of a 3 percent percent increase in the School Department’s portion of the city property tax. The budget as proposed would increase the school portion 3.1 percent.

School Board members continued to review the budget at a workshop Tuesday night, one of two board meetings this week reserved for budget deliberations.

The board got an earful from the public, specifically about changing fifth-grade band to an extra-curricular activity at an off-site location, likely at Mahoney and Memorial Middle schools during first block of the school day.

Kira Babcock, a junior at the high school and member of the band, said, “band is a huge part of my life inside and outside of school.”

Elementary school students are intimidated by middle school students, Babcock said. She added that if she had to ride a bus to the middle school by herself for band practice, she probably would have stopped going. 

Jeff Selser, girls varsity soccer coach at the high school, whose position would be affected if the budget is approved, said, “Is it ideal? No; can I make it work? Yeah.” 

Selser went on to say that the one thing in the proposed cuts that he has the hardest time reconciling is the fifth-grade band reconfiguration. “I’ve been over and over it in my head,” he said.

Rusty Quinn, board member for the South Portland Music Boosters, told the board that both of his sons got their start in music in fifth-grade band. “The music program in South Portland has been so important to me, my family and my kids,” Quinn said. 

Other criticism was aimed at the proposal to replace five librarians with two technology ed-techs and volunteers.

Greg Lewis, resident, referred to the proposal as an “extremely misguided policy.”

Karen Westerberg, librarian at Wells Elementary School, told the board the same decision was made last year in her school district.

“Two positions to replace five is not enough,” Westerberg said. “You can’t rely on volunteers to do work that’s been done by paid personnel.”

A public hearing and budget deliberations will continue at the next meeting Thursday, March 26.

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA

South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.