South Portland School Board opts for 2.2% budget increase

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The School Board is poised to pass a 2.2 percent budget increase, which would result in a tax rate increase of about 50 cents.

At a workshop meeting on Wednesday, six of the seven School Board members expressed support for the plan as presented by Superintendent of Schools Suzanne Godin. Sara Goldberg was the only dissenter. 

The district operating budget under the 2.2 percent increase would be $39.6 million in fiscal 2013, $34.8 million of which would come from property taxes. 

“I think the 2.2 percent proposal does a very good job of balancing today’s needs, ongoing programs, and moving the district forward – albeit in baby steps – to meet the needs of tomorrow,” School Board member Richard Carter said.

To illustrate the effects of flat-funding the district, Godin originally presented a budget that would have required no tax increase outside that already approved by voters for high school renovation and debt service.

That plan would have resulted in $911,000 worth of cuts and the elimination of 16 positions.

The version likely to be approved reinstates many of those positions, though four jobs – a warehouse clerk, two middle school library clerks and a high school science teacher – are still on the chopping block. Godin said those cuts would likely not result in layoffs.

Even if the first budget plan were adopted, taxpayers would still see a 28-cent increase in the school share of their tax rate, due to two measures already approved by voters: the South Portland High School renovation bond and a reserve fund established to cover secondary facilities expenses. 

If the 2.2 percent budget increase is approved by the board, residents would see  a 50-cent increase in the school tax rate share, up to $10.65 from this year’s rate of $10.15.

Combined with the proposed 9-cent tax rate increase planned on the municipal side of the budget, the average homeowner – based on the average median property assessment of $195,000 – can expect to pay about $106 more in property taxes next year, according to School Department Finance Director Rafe Forland. 

In addition to saving 12 of the positions that would be eliminated in a flat-funded budget, the 2.2 percent increase would also fund the creation of a clerk at Small Elementary School, where attendance is high; a curriculum director to help South Portland adopt the Common Core education standards; stipends for the high school Interact and Robotics clubs; $60,000 for professional development, which was eliminated in five previous operating budgets; $15,000 in stipends for elementary building leadership teams, and $20,000 to fund field trips.

While the board is expected to pass the budget increase, Goldberg is still lukewarm on the plan.

“I’m still hemming and hawing, you know?” she said Wednesday. “I’m not completely comfortable with a 2.2 percent increase because I think we’re asking a lot of the taxpayers in a hard economy. That concerns me.”

Still, Goldberg said she’d have a hard time picking budget reductions. The list of positions the budget increase would preserve is listed in order of importance to the district administrators and teachers. If she were to cut down to the 1.5 percent increase she preferred, Goldberg said she’d cut from the bottom to get there.

School board member Jeff Selser took issue with that approach: The dozen or so items that differentiated the flat-funded budget from the 2.2 percent increase were just a handful out of thousands of line items, he said.  

“So when the superintendent says they may be in any particular order of importance, the magnitude of difference between any two is minuscule,” he said. “How do we determine the relative importance of dozens of items out of thousands?”

For that reason, Selser said he wouldn’t cut anything from the proposed budget. He said it was reasonable for the board to request more money each year from voters because education costs more to provide each year.

“Without some increase, we are moving backward,” Selser said, referencing the $911,000 in cuts that would be necessitated by a flat-funded budget. “I just cannot, as a member of the School Board, ever vote to move us backward.”

Godin cautioned against seeing the proposed budget as one without pain. Even though it includes a 2.2 percent increase, it still requires cuts across many areas, she said.  Funding was reduced to areas such as career and technical education, student and staff support and system administration. 

The School Board will vote on a first reading of the budget on April 2. They’ll vote again on April 9, before sending the budget to the City Council and, ultimately, to voters.

Mario Moretto can be reached at 791-3661 ext. 106 or Follow him on Twitter: @riocarmine.