Schools eye teachers contract, athletics for savings

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PORTLAND — Faced with a nearly $2 million curtailment of state education funds, the School Committee is balancing a need to act quickly with its responsibility to allow time for public discourse on several proposed spending cuts.
The committee will hold a public hearing on Jan. 14. at 7 p.m. in Room 250 of Casco Bay High School about more than $1.6 million in proposed reductions.
In a memo to the school Finance Committee, Interim Superintendent Jeanne Whynot-Vickers outlined nearly $1.6 million in budget cuts that could be made immediately and without the School Committee’s approval.
Meanwhile, school officials are expected to meet with the teachers union about using furlough days as a last-resort measure to balance the budget – a move the union opposes. Furlough days mean teachers would have to take a day off without pay.
Officials are also expected to discuss cuts to some winter and spring athletic programs. Whynot-Vickers said the cuts will inevitably impact students, however, the district will seek to minimize impact on students and avoid cutting too deeply into vital services and programs.
About $1.3 million of the proposed cuts that can be made without committee approval stem from over-budgeting salaries, including $400,000 in benefits and $900,000 in wages that were not removed when positions were eliminated late in last year’s budget process.
While these reductions and others can be made administratively, Finance Committee Chairwoman Kate Snyder said the School Committee will have to vote on a proposal to fill a vacant health position at Lincoln Middle School.
Whynot-Vickers has proposed filling that position with a family living and human sexuality teacher, who instructs fourth- and fifth-graders across the district. That move could save the district $45,000.
But Snyder said she wonders about the result that decision would have for the family living curriculum at the fourth- and fifth-grade levels throughout the district.
“We’re still at a point where questions are being asked,” Snyder said. “Would we be doing away with that curriculum? Would we be putting that curriculum on the shoulders of current classroom teachers? Those are the questions we’re working through right now.”
Snyder said the committee is trying to respond to Gov. John Baldacci’s $2 million curtailment order for education subsidies in a timely manner, but also wants to have a deliberate process with enough time built in for the public to understand the cuts and offer feedback.
“The best thing we can to is to be really, really clear and transparent and accessible to the public so they understand the challenges the district is facing,” Snyder said.
Those challenges are expected to continue into next year’s budget. Snyder said people must understand that many of the proposed reductions are one-time savings that will not carry over to next year. That could put the district in an even more difficult position than it is in now.
“What we’re hearing from our legislative delegation is that next year is going to be even tougher,” she said.
Although the state education commissioner said last week that no more cuts in state education subsidies are expected this year, the district still plans to sit down with the teachers union about possibly using teacher furlough days for savings. The district could save upwards of $180,000 per furlough day.
Union approval would also be needed to reduce reimbursements to teachers for professional development course tuition.
Portland Education Association President Kathleen Casasa said the union does not support unpaid furlough days. Instead, Casasa would like the district to consider deferring teachers’ pay until the district’s fiscal outlook improves.
School administrators and union leaders are scheduled to hold discussions throughout January and February.
In the coming weeks, the School Committee also plans to discuss suspending some spring and winter athletics. According to the memo, middle school spring sports cost the district $45,000, while high school spring sports cost $194,000.
Meanwhile, middle school wrestling and swimming – winter sports scheduled to start in January – cost the district $14,000 and $11,000.
Since the curtailment was announced, the district has frozen all nonessential spending, reduced discretionary classroom spending by 5 percent and instituted a hiring freeze on nonessential personnel.
The School Committee will get a first read of the proposed reductions on Jan. 7. A public hearing will be held on Jan. 14, with final action coming either on Jan. 21 or 28.

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