South Portland School Board OKs budget elements

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Three days after providing extended explanations to city councilors about spending and budgeting, School Board members on Monday approved a $43 million fiscal year 2014 budget for operations, food service, adult education and debt service.

The vote forwards the budget to City Councilors for their consideration on Monday, May 20.

City Manager Jim Gailey on Wednesday, meanwhile, said the council won’t vote on the municipal operations budget until next month, delaying the vote to see how the state budget may affect city finances.

The $40.6 million operating budget is a 3 percent increase over the current $39.4 million budget. The share funded by local property taxes increases from $35.2 million to $37.1 million.

Councilors can amend the final school budget, but have no line-item authority on spending. The school budget also must be approved by a voter referendum expected to be scheduled, but not yet set, for June 11.

With member Mary House absent Monday, the School Board unanimously approved details of 11 “cost centers” for areas including special education, facilities maintenance, transportation and regular instruction.

The board also approved exceeding the state Essential Programs and Services model for operations by $3.4 million.

The votes followed a May 9 joint City Council and School Board workshop, where School Superintendent Suzanne Godin, Finance Director Rafe Forland and School Board Chairman Rick Carter discussed operating surpluses, especially in the area of salaries and general budgeting practices.

The workshop followed the release of School Department financial data dating to 2010 requested by Gailey at the behest of councilors.

“This is right to the dollar across the board for the 600-plus employees,” Carter said at the beginning of the workshop. He asked councilors to reach a consensus on the budget so the School Board could take its vote next week.

City Councilor Jerry Jalbert called for an independent audit of School Board finances at an April 10 workshop as he sought more clarity on why education budgets have overstated salary lines for the last several years.

As the data was reviewed, Godin and Carter said the unusual circumstances of the district receiving additional direct federal funding in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and a 2011 Jobs Bill, and inordinately increased retirements and departures because of changes in state pension laws, were primary factors in overestimating salary budget lines.

“Our goal was to expend that money first because we did not want to give it back to the government,” Godin said.

Carter said he hopes the public will understand the inexact nature of budgeting and realize the School Department is not simply adding a flat percentage to what is budgeted one year to determine the next year’s budget.

Colchester Road resident Albert DiMillo Jr. has repeatedly criticized the School Department for the practice, and said the data received by councilors did not contain the answers they needed because salaries may be over-budgeted by $1.2 million to $1.5 million this year.

Jalbert disagreed with DiMillo.

“It is not just taking the old numbers and adding to them. To me, I wasn’t sure about that until I saw it literally line by line,” he said.

The question of reserve funds and surpluses remained of interest to Jalbert, though.

“There are certain events that cause surpluses and we don’t seem to try to estimate those,” he said.

Godin said areas including special education contain variables such as changes in enrollment or needed services that cannot always be predicted, and having a $200,000 reserve is better than returning to the council and voters to seek more money midway through a fiscal year.

“If I have to come to the City Council in January and say ‘ I need more money,’ where is it coming from?” she asked in response to Jalbert’s suggestion of creating supplemental budgets to address changing financial demands.

Following DiMillo’s public comments, former School Board member Jeff Selser said he wanted councilors and School Board members to show each other more respect.

“I want you to wipe the slate clean. There has been bad blood between the council and the School Board and frankly, the public is sick of it,” Selser said. “Start with the premise that people are speaking the truth.”

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.