South Portland School Board blinks in budget standoff with City Council

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SOUTH PORTLAND — After refusing to budge Monday night, the School Board Wednesday whittled down its proposed budget for fiscal year 2013.

In what board member Jeff Selser called a “feisty” workshop, the board found places to make cuts in its proposed operating budget.

“It was a very difficult meeting,” Selser said Thursday. “There wasn’t a general agreement, so we had to keep working at it and working at it until we found some combination of changes that the majority of the board was the least uncomfortable with.”

In a joint workshop on Monday night, the School Board presented the City Council with a budget increase of $762,400, or 2.2 percent, to $40 million, in the operating budget for 2013. Members said everything in the budget was “mission critical.”

“We strongly believe the budget is in the best interest of the students of South Portland,” Tappan Fitzgerald, the School Board chairman, said.

But on Wednesday the board cut $136,000 by replacing $50,000 of the tax need with surplus cash and cutting $86,000 in other budget lines.

Including these cuts, the proposed operating budget is up about 1.8 percent over this year, and more closely in line with City Council expectations.

The new proposal eliminates a proposed part-time communications position (essentially a public relations staffer for the schools), cuts $30,000 in professional development funds, maintains the status quo for field trip funding and eliminates stipends for elementary school teacher-leaders.

On Monday night, councilors were conflicted as to what number they would like to see come back to them in another workshop on April 30, but they knew 2.2 percent wasn’t the one they wanted.

“If this comes back to me at 3.73 (percent, including high school bond obligations), I would be inclined to oppose, not saying I would, but I would be inclined,” Councilor Tom Blake said.

Councilors Tom Blake and Gerald Jalbert said they would like to see an increase more like 1.1 percent or 1.2 percent come back to the council, while Councilor Maxine Beecher and Mayor Patti Smith said they would support a 1.9 percent or 2 percent increase if it is “mission critical.” Councilor Rosemarie De Angelis said she would like to see the operating budget come in around 1.5 percent.

While councilors asked the School Board to sharpen their pencils, student representatives Lizzie Canarie and Jackson Beck told councilors that anything less than a 2.2 percent increase would not serve students well. They said the educational needs of the students have changed and a greater investment in South Portland schools is needed.

“Invest in us, we will serve you well,” Canarie said.

Board member Richard Matthews echoed the students.

“South Portland has a logo with a light house that says ‘forward,’” he said. “We need that 2.2 percent to move forward; our school system needs to move forward.”

Blake responded by saying he believes there are more cuts that can be made that will not have a negative impact on students.

“I completely understand about ‘forward,’” Blake said. “But there are very few circumstances where everyone can move forward without sacrifices.”

Selser said he believes the City Council will be more inclined to approve the 1.8 percent increase adopted Wednesday.

“Given a choice of several meals, none of which were very tasty, enough people agreed on the one was the least distasteful,” he said.

Amber Cronin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 115 or acronin@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @croninamber.

This story was edited on May 1 at 11:45 a.m. to reflect an error brought to our attention by Councilor Rosemarie De Angelis. She said she would like to see the operating budget at 1.5 percent, not 1.1 percent as was originally printed.

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