Residents speak out against music cuts proposed in Portland school budget

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PORTLAND — Dozens of parents, residents, teachers and students on Monday asked the School Committee to reconsider proposed budget cuts in school music and special education.

Monday night’s public hearing, attended by more than 100 people at the Fred. P. Hall Elementary School, was the first opportunity for the public to weigh in on Superintendent James C. Morse Sr.’s $89.3 million budget proposal for next year.

Although $2 million smaller than the current spending level, the proposed budget would increase the local tax rate by 2.5 percent, or $1.7 million. About 80 jobs are on the chopping block along with some middle school sports that are offered by other community organizations. 

School Committee member Kate Snyder said the school Finance Committee, which she leads, wanted to hear the public’s reaction to Morse’s budget, which was presented on March 3, before beginning its deliberations.

“We really wanted to hear from the community at the start of our conversation,” Synder said.

Many parents and students offered a passionate defense of the kindergarten through 12th-grade music program. Two staff positions for the K-12 strings program and school orchestra are slated to be cut under Morse’s budget.

Residents argued against the cuts, because they said there is no similar program in the community for the children. The school music program, they said, offers free instruments to low-income students, and private music lessons are expensive.

Berkely Street resident Laura O’Meara has a daughter who is a junior in Deering High School and a son in the seventh grade at Lincoln Middle School. Both are involved in the music program.

“When you think of cutting middle school strings there are no options for him; there’s no alternative,” O’Meara said.

Charlie Thompson, a Lyseth Elementary School student who plays the trumpet, said he is concerned that if music programs are cut his younger brother won’t be able to play in the band.

“Please don’t cut it,” Thompson said. “A lot of kids just love music and they want to use instruments. Some kids don’t have that opportunity. I want my little brother to have band.”

Reading an essay from her daughter, an eighth-grader at Lincoln, Cathy St. Laurent said music teaches students more than notes on a scale; it also teaches them math, reading and respect for the conductor.

Music also provides solace in moments of loss, St. Laurent said.

Ari Solotoff, executive director of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, said he would be willing to work with the schools to find a way to preserve music for middle schools, especially the pivotal fourth and fifth grades. He said 71 percent of PSO audiences played an instrument or sang in a school band.

“We need to move from the question of ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to ‘How can we work together?’,” he said.

Meanwhile, several special education teachers criticized cuts proposed after a report suggested the district could save $2.5 million a year through staffing reductions and reorganization.

Moira Leighton, an ed tech who has a special needs child at Lyman Moore Middle School, said she felt as though the special education program was under attack in the budget. She criticized the report for focusing too much on staffing and not enough on students.

“One of the most disturbing aspects of (the report) is I didn’t see my son reflected in it,” Leighton said. “If we do not provide resources for these children as students, we will be paying for them as adults.”

Kathleen Casasa, president of the Portland Education Association union, said teachers are doing their best to do their jobs “as we understand them.” She said teachers should be given a chance to have their job descriptions changed and meet those expectations.

“We understand there’s change afoot and we are trying to embrace it, too,” she said.

Not all of the public comment was negative. One resident spoke in favor of supporting core curriculum over extra-curricular programs, while another complimented Morse for reinstating the elementary school foreign language program.

Many residents also complimented increased staffing for English Language Learners that is included in the proposed budget. But Cindy Martin, an ELL teacher at Hall School, said that cuts proposed to middle school sports may reduce attendance by ELL students.

“ELL kids keep their grades up because they want to play sports,” said Martin, who  suggested the committee look at reducing administrators, rather staff and programs that directly affects students.

“Sports keeps kids in school,” she said.

Following the hearing, Snyder responded to several residents who said Morse’s budget is not transparent, because there is no clear explanation about what is proposed to be cut. She said she would direct Morse to produce a clear explanation of his budget changes and post it to the district’s Web site.

“Having a clearly articulated and simplified version of the PowerPoint presentation and the budget is something that is very important to me,” she said.

Snyder said the Finance Committee will hold a series of meetings over the week to discuss the budget. It is scheduled to vote a budget out of committee by March 19 and present it to the School Committee on March 24.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or