South Portland bus service expansion on the table

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council and School Board met in a joint workshop Wednesday night to discuss what each expects in planning the fiscal year 2017 school and city budgets.

Because it is still early in the process, hard numbers weren’t discussed, although the municipal budget is expected to increase at least 2.5 percent – and more if a proposal to expand municipal bus service is included.

Historically, councilors give the School Board a target to meet in the budget. Last year, they proposed an increase of 5-5.5 percent.  

At the Jan. 13 meeting, however, most councilors shied away from taking what some saw as a top-down approach. 

“I don’t like setting some arbitrary percentage,” Councilor Linda Cohen said. Cohen commended the board’s work last year and said she trusts it to craft a reasonable budget.

Everyone is in agreement about being “fiscally responsible,” Mayor Tom Blake said. While it’s necessary to be mindful about an overall budget increase that exceeds 5.5 percent, he said, the council is willing to work with the board on what it feels the district needs. 

Superintendent of Schools Ken Kunin agreed, saying, “We don’t want to come forward with a budget that is not something the community can’t live with.” 

The student population, including the pre-K program, is expected to stay at about 3,100 students, Kunin told councilors. 

Areas of note include the continued growth of the English Language Learner population – in 2012 the School Department had 160 ELL students served by eight teachers. This year, there are 270 students, still served by eight teachers.

The department is in the process of “studying the effective and efficient options” for how to continue accommodating those students, Kunin said Wednesday night. 

Kunin also said the department is “exploring the possibility” of utilizing some lines of the municipal bus service as a way of supplementing School Department transportation for students.

“We think there are some routes that would work for us,” Kunin said. 

City Manager Jim Gailey, in his line-item list of anticipated expenditures for fiscal 2017, included expanding the six-day-a-week public bus service to Sundays, at a cost of about $150,000. 

City buses run Monday-Friday from about 5:30 a.m.-11 p.m. On Saturday, buses run from 6:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m.

Preliminary calculations show an expected increase on the city side of the budget of about 3.7 percent. One of the biggest new expenditures would be $200,000 in the first year of borrowing for the new $14 million Municipal Services Facility off Highland Avenue. 

Overall, on the municipal side, “without really doing anything, we’re at (an increase) of 2.5 percent,” Gailey said Wednesday. The increase rises to 3.3 percent if the new bus service is implemented, “and that’s not even getting into salaries,” he said. 

Kunin is expected to present his proposed school budget at the March 14 School Board meeting.

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.