South Portland School Board approves $37.8M budget, seeks 1.5% tax increase

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The School Board on Monday unanimously approved a $37.9 million budget, which eliminates 25 jobs for the fiscal year starting July 1.

The budget is projected to increase taxes by 1.5 percent, adding 14 cents to the current tax rate of $14.70 per $1,000 of valuation.

None of the more controversial aspects of the superintendent’s proposed budget were included in the final package.

Instead, the board used $1.9 million in federal stimulus money, which will not be available after September 2011, to retain in-house custodial serves, a move that saved 28 jobs. In all, 31 positions, including a vocal music teacher and two elementary school teachers, are temporarily funded through next year.

The board formed three separate task forces to study outsourcing custodial services, pay-to-participate co-curricular activities and a proposal to close Mahoney Middle School. 

Superintendent of Schools Suzanne Godin said budget cuts were eased by the state’s announcement that an additional $623,000 in education aid may be sent to the district, an allocation that still needs legislative approval.

Also, Godin said insurance premiums only increased by 2 percent, rather than the 12 percent that was originally budgeted, freeing up nearly $475,000. 

The adjustments allowed board members to reinstate six positions originally targeted for elimination: a high school guidance ed tech, a central office administrator, a middle school physical education teacher, a bus dispatcher/driver, a part-time nurse and part-time high school English teacher.

The budget passed Monday would have fallen within budget guidance from the City Council, which sets the bottom line for school spending, but the board decided to capitalize a high school reserve fund through a 1.5 percent increase in taxes.

School Department Business Manager Polly Ward said that amount could increase over the next several years to help offset a bond payment, if voters approve a high school reconstruction plan.

Some parents, who had previously lobbied the board to increase taxes to retain services, criticized the board for using the money on the reserve account.

Colchester Drive resident Peter Stocks said the plan sends the wrong message to the city, which is faced with cutting police and fire services.

“We didn’t have to make the cuts,” Stocks said. “In the end, it sends the wrong message, that we’re not willing to share the pain.”

Although the cuts were not a severe as they could have been, board Chairman Richard Carter said the fiscal 2011 budget was the most difficult he has ever developed. He lamented the loss of 25 workers.

“These are people we care deeply about,” Carter said. “We did what we had to do, but we didn’t get through it without a lot of pain.”

The School Board is scheduled to present its budget to the City Council at a workshop on Monday, March 15.

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

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School Board OKs $42M plan to renovate South Portland HS

SOUTH PORTLAND — The School Board accepted a $41.9 million plan to renovate South Portland High School and address health, safety and programming deficiencies that threaten its accreditation.

The board must now meet with the City Council about funding the project through a local bond, which they hope voters will approve as early as November.

Board member Jerald McQueeny voted against the plan. He said there is no accompanying financial strategy to pay for it, a sentiment that was echoed by several residents on Monday.

“I struggle with calling this a ‘plan,'” said Hillside Avenue resident Don Russell, who has volunteered to help the district form a marketing and communication plan to build support for the project. “We need to build a plan around a budget. Then, we have a plan.”

Many residents complimented the work done by the Secondary Schools Facility Committee, which has worked on the plan periodically for the last six years. However, many faulted the charge they were given, which was to develop a building without concern for the financials.

Mellissa Linscott said the committee should be reformed to include a wider array of members, including financing experts. Linscott said that in a city where only 25 percent of residents have children in public schools, the district is going to need every one of those votes.

“I do have a problem getting behind this plan right now because the funding piece is not there,” she said. “We’re the ones you need to count on for our vote.”

Others in the audience, however, urged the board to support the plan and iron out the financial details later.

“You don’t have to solve the whole puzzle tonight,” Simmons Road resident Glenn Ekholm said.

In January, the board decided not to pursue a June referendum to fund the high school project out of concern for future budget shortfalls.

If a bond is approved, the board would have to budget the bond payments, which initially would be about $3 million.

But the fiscal 2011 school budget includes a 1.5 percent tax increase specifically to capitalize a high school reserve account with $500,000 to help offset the bond payments on a new high school, if and when one is approved by voters.

School Business manager Polly Ward said a similar strategy was used when the district financed the construction of five new elementary schools. Ward said the contribution could increase over the next several years.

— Randy Billings

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