School budget cuts please South Portland City Council

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council on Monday gave tacit approval to a School Board budget reduced by about $138,000 from a $39.6 million proposal councilors had deemed too high.

“What we’re seeing tonight is a really positive thing,” Councilor Rosemarie De Angelis said. “There was movement, and that’s what we asked for.”

The school budget, including operating costs, debt service on the voter-approved high school renovation and a reserve account to pay for future high school construction costs, represents a 4.4 percent increase over the current year, City Finance Director Greg L’Heureux said. 

Stated another way, it’s about a 46-cent increase on the property tax rate allocated to the city. That figure, combined with the 9-cent municipal property-tax rate increase will result in about a 55-cent increase in the overall tax rate, or an extra $83 on the average homeowner’s tax bill next year. 

After being presented with the School Board’s original budget proposal, councilors asked for deeper cuts. School Board members at first resisted, but found the cuts during their April 25 workshop. Of that $138,000 cut, $88,000 came from line-item cuts, including the elimination of a part-time communications position. The remaining cut was created by allocating $50,000 of surplus cash from this year to fiscal year 2013.

The School Department’s 2013 budget still includes the elimination of four positions – a warehouse clerk, two library clerks and a high school science teacher. It also funds 35 positions formerly funded by federal stimulus dollars.

That revenue stream, which accounted for $1.6 million in the 2011-2012 school year, dries up next year. Total state and federal funding for city schools is down $1.6 million over the past eight years.

No formal vote was taken Monday, but councilors seemed inclined to back the School Board’s proposal, which cut a 2.2 percent operating cost increase down to about 1.78 percent.

But councilors and School Board members alike had gripes about the budget process. Several complained about the relatively short period of time they had to work together on the budget. 

“For three years, I’ve heard, ‘Let’s get together sooner,'” Councilor Al Livingston said. “I’m tired of getting the newspapers and trying to decipher the numbers. It’s time we do something about it.”

They batted around the idea of meeting together in a joint workshop session sooner, possibly as early as January. School Board member Jeff Selser, who campaigned on the idea of beginning the budget process earlier in the year, supported the suggestion. 

But James Gilboy, also a School Board member, said the exercise could be futile because the state doesn’t give any firm estimates on local school funding until spring. 

“We could meet, but come May, if we dont’ have the numbers where we thought, it’s a wasted meeting,” he said.

On Monday, May 7, the School Board will hold a final vote on its budget. Immediately after that, the council will take up the complete city budget for a vote, before ultimately sending the school budget to voters on Tuesday, May 15.

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow him on Twitter: @riocarmine.