School budget reduces Portland tax burden

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PORTLAND — The School Committee on April 1 unanimously approved a $91.36 million budget.

The fiscal 2010 budget, which takes effect on July 1, is an increase of $1.86 million, or 2 percent, over the current $89.5 million budget.

Next year’s budget eliminates 17 positions and repays $600,000 to the city’s fund balance, which was used to bail out the School Department’s nearly $2 million deficit in 2007.

Preliminary projections on state education aid are that Portland will receive $17.6 million next year, a $2.64 million, or 17.7 percent, increase over the current $14.9 million subsidy.

The projected increase in state funding, if appoved by the Legislature, would reduce the school’s share of the local tax rate by $880,000.

“We are living in uncertain times,” Finance Chairwoman Kate Snyder said. “This is a tight budget that seeks to maintain what we have now.” 

Although subsidy figures will not be finalized for another month or so, the committee added $150,000 in expenditures and kept a $100,000 line item that could be used by incoming Superintendent James Morse, who starts on July 1, to hire an assistant to oversee the district’s high schools.

The committee unanimously approved adding $50,000 into the budget for a world language coordinator for the elementary schools. Over the next year, the coordinator is expected to create a program that the School Committee hopes to include in the fiscal 2011 budget. Snyder this week said there are no estimates for how much the program would cost next year.

After some debate last week, the committee also added another $100,000 to reinstate two elementary teachers who work with English language learners. 

Resident Cindi Taylor, an ELL teacher at Hall Elementary School, supported reinstating the positions, noting that ELL staff has been cut, even though the number of English language learners has increased to about 25 percent of the city’s total school population. 

Taylor suggested the committee re-examine the increased investment in administrators if it needs to save money. “Our students and families deserve better than this,” she said. 

Snyder argued against reinstating the positions and was joined in opposition by committee member Jaimey Caron and Chairman Peter Eglinton. 

Snyder said there hadn’t been enough discussion about adding back the positions and couldn’t justify this need above “the myriad” of others. 

“There’s been no planning around this,” Synder said. “Without that ground work, I’m reluctant to move in that direction.”

Committee member Rebecca Minnick, who proposed adding back the positions, argued that Portland, with the most diverse population north of Boston, had an obligation to meet the needs of students struggling to learn English. 

“I have seen the enormous need for support these students have,” Minnick said. “We tend to view our ELL population as a burden and that’s not fair. … To me it’s a selling point.” 

Committee member Marnie Morrione said she supported the addition because she was concerned about the effect the cuts would have on the existing staff and, by extension, the students. Those sentiments were echoed by Robert O’Brien, Justin Costa and Elizabeth Holton.

“I feel like we have a little breathing room” Holton said of the additional revenue anticipated from the state.

The committee also approved moving a $100,000 line item that was originally designated for the assistant superintendent into the School Committee’s budget. The money is intended to provide the incoming superintendent with financial resources to reorganize central office staff.

Moving the line item reduces constraints on the money and gives the committee a voice in how it’s spent. Snyder made an unsuccessful attempt to reduce the allotment to $50,000, since Morse wouldn’t likely hire someone until January 2010, which is half way through the fiscal year.

The school budget was presented to the City Council on Monday night. The council, which sets the bottom line for school spending, will vote May 4.

A citywide referendum on school spending is scheduled for May 14.

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