South Portland council demands school budget data

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Continuing concern over School Department spending has led to an unusual City Council request for specific school financial information.

At the council’s direction, City Manager Jim Gailey on Wednesday asked School Board Chairman Rick Carter for documents and details on budget variances, employee departures and retirements, and explanations of budgeting practices, to be delivered by April 30.

Under the City Charter, the city manager must make the request. But the specifics of the letter were determined by councilors, and were based on discussions at an April 3 joint budget presentation and Monday night’s council workshop.

As the School Department finalizes its proposed $43.2 million fiscal year 2014 budget, Carter said assembling the records could be daunting.

“Looking at this, this is going to be a tremendous amount of staff time – it is four years’ worth of information,” he said.

But he also said he realizes the council is just doing its due diligence. “There is nothing the council is asking for that raises any red flags to me,” Carter said.

The information will be the basis of a workshop with School Department Finance Director Rafe Forland, although some data predates his tenure in the district.

The council’s directive to Gailey was fueled in part Monday by Colchester Drive resident Albert DiMillo Jr., who is a frequent critic of city and school spending.

DiMillo presented School Department records that he said show actual expenses for salaries came in $667,000 below the budgeted $25.1 million for fiscal year 2011, and $766,000 below the budgeted $25.7 million in fiscal year 2012.

Based on eight months of data, DiMillo said he projects the School Department will show a $1.5 million surplus in its current salary budget of $25.7 million.

DiMillo volunteered himself as auditor Monday night, since he is retired and has an accounting background. He said it would take an hour or two to look over the records – an assertion City Finance Director Greg L’Heureux almost immediately disputed.

“How deep do you want them to dig into the underlying detail of the schedule?” L’Heureux asked. “Look at the scope of what you want them to do.”

Councilor Jerry Jalbert said there is a need for an independent audit dating back at least three years.

“I think we have a fiduciary duty to make sure there is accuracy based on actual numbers,” Jalbert said, while also noting he wanted to avoid any suggestion that councilors are trying to exercise line-item control on school budgets.

Councilors have the final say on what the School Department can spend annually, but have no oversight on individual line items.

Troubled by what appears to be an inordinate number of retirements in the last few years, Jalbert said he was most curious to learn what new teachers may earn and how the School Department budgets for replacements who might make about half what a teacher retiring at the top end of the salary scale earns.

On Monday, School Superintendent Suzanne Godin said there were 73 position shifts two years ago, and 45 more in the current year.

Those involved actual departures of staff throughout the district, she said. The department has eliminated about 70 positions in five years, but only one layoff has resulted from the eliminations.

Gailey has asked the School Department to provide data on the number of staff retirements and departures in the last three years, salary information on outgoing and incoming staff, and whether positions left open by retirements or departures were filled with a replacement or the duties were fulfilled in some other manner.

Councilor Patti Smith said the variances in salary expenses may also be caused by variables like severance pay or paying for unused sick or personal days. That ultimately led to Gailey’s request that the School Department show its payroll budget variances in dollar and percentage terms with explanations for the 13 largest variances.

City and school operations are audited annually, but L’Heureux noted the reviews focus more on spending and accounting practices than what methods are used to formulate budgets

Carter said education budgeting is not always an exact science.

“The difficulty with a school budget is there is so much we have to budget that is based on unknowns. Special Ed is the easy obvious example, and we don’t control when people say they are going to retire,” he said.

Budgeting teacher contracts requires forecasting contracted percentage and “step” pay increases, with the latter calculated by years of experience and professional development.

Because Jalbert wondered how much of a variance there is between incoming staff and the experienced teachers they are replacing, Gailey also asked for information on the methods for drafting the salary portion of the annual budgets.

Councilors said they would like to learn more about the finances before they vote on the fiscal year 2014 education budget next month, but will set aside other questions about accumulated surpluses until a joint workshop, perhaps in June.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.