South Portland school budget heads to ballot with modest increase

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Fore River Sound Stage to lease armory

SOUTH PORTLAND — Voters on Tuesday, May 10, will be asked to OK a proposed $42.8 million school budget, which represents a 1 percent increase over this year. 

The City Council on Monday unanimously approved the spending plan, which would increase the property tax rate 10 cents per $1,000 of value. The school budget was approved by the School Board several weeks ago.

As expected, councilors also approved a long-awaited deal to create a film-production studio in the landmark former Maine Army National Guard Armory on Broadway.

Before the school budget vote, School Board Chairman Ralph Baxter Jr. said the phrase “tough budget year” makes him laugh. “I started on the School Board in 1993,” he said, “and every year has been a tough budget year.”

The $69.2 million town and school budget, a $2 million increase over last year, would increase taxes by 2.74 percent. The council has not yet voted on the municipal side of the budget.

The council also unanimously approved an additional $1.05 million to set aside for the new high school project, which was approved by voters last year.

The school budget does not include an earlier proposal to institute student activity fees. It also restores several positions originally proposed for elimination, including two library clerks, two ed techs and a guidance counselor/social worker.

Several residents turned out Monday night, most of whom spoke out in support of the school budget.

“I feel this is a very moderate request for schools,” resident Susan Adams said. “This will allow us to continue our good work and continue the services to the children.”

Others, including frequent school spending critic Albert DiMillo Jr., questioned the School Department’s record of ending up with budget surpluses.

“It’s unfair to taxpayers,” he said. “You over-collected the past six years and didn’t give a penny back to taxpayers.”

Several School Board members were also present and spoke in favor of the budget.

“Our kids need a great education, our kids deserve a great education,” School Board member Richard Carter said. “That’s not a want, it’s a need.”

Several times, School Board members and councilors acknowledged past communication challenges between the two panels, and vowed to do better in the future.

“The school committee and council are developing a better relationship than we have in years,” Councilor Thomas Coward said.

Fore River Sound Stage

In other business, the council unanimously approved the long-negotiated lease of the former National Guard Armory to Fore River Sound Stage.

The arrangement has been in on-again, off-again talks for almost two years. In April, Mayor Rosemarie De Angelis said the city and the sound stage investors had reached a tentative deal that would be approved this month.

The lease will run from June 1 to May 31, 2016, with two renewal terms of five years, and gives the operators the right to purchase the building in the future.

For the first six months, the city will not charge rent. After six months, the rent will be $550 per month.

“I see this venture as a perfect opportunity to enhance and promote the arts economy in Maine,” Town Manager Jim Gailey said. “We’re very pleased that Fore River Sound Stage chose South Portland.”

The city purchased the armory in 2006 for $650,000; the Fire Department has been using the garage portion of the building. As part of the lease, the city will continue to have easement access to the garage bays.

Cape Elizabeth resident Eric Matheson, a film-industry technician with more than 40 years in the business, leads the Fore River Sound Stage investors. He said during the meeting that the group intends to purchase the space as soon as possible.

“There aren’t any guarantees in this world, but I think we can make something out of this,” he said.

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or Follow her on Twitter: @emilyparkhurst.