South Portland school chief proposes 2.8% budget hike

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SOUTH PORTLAND — A proposed $47.8 million school budget could raise the tax rate by 31 cents per $1,000 of valuation, Superintendent Ken Kunin told the school board Monday.

In his first budget presentation since starting his job last August, Kunin said it is his goal to set the funding needed to provide “quality learning,” while also being “good stewards” of taxpayers’ money.

The fiscal year 2017 budget is up 2.8 percent from this year’s spending package of $46.1 million, but is within the 3 percent increase limit requested by the City Council earlier this year.

Several new positions, as well as some capital expenses, are included in the new budget, along with a proposal to fund from the local budget several current positions that were previously paid for with grants and other sources.

Kunin said the new positions are being driven by enrollment needs, particularly to keep within the School board’s student-teacher ratio guidelines and to provide the legally mandated resources required for a large number of incoming special education students.

He said some of the budget increase is also due to negotiated salary and benefit increases for School Department staff, which totals about $1 million, and by his concern that more needs to be done to maintain school buildings.

In addition, Kunin is calling for new coaching stipends for the middle schools and high school. He said it’s his goal for every student in grades 6-12 to have the opportunity to participate in at least one sport per season.

“We believe it’s certainly in our students’ best interests to be engaged and involved,” he said.

Kunin also said that while “we certainly have a lot more needs,” it was his intent to remain within the 3 percent guideline provided by the council in terms of any increases in school spending.

Overall, he called the proposed budget “a responsible (one) that continues to meet student needs.”

Kunin is recommending that two new teachers be hired at the elementary school level in order to meet an influx of kindergarten students, particularly at Dyer and Skillin schools.

These new teachers would add more than $139,000 to the budget. Kunin is also requesting a new English language learning teacher at a cost of nearly $70,000.

He said the number of students in the district for whom English is not the first language is growing, and the department must expand its staffing in this area. He’s also asking for a new educational technician for English language learners, at a cost of $36,000.

To meet the needs of a possible 46 incoming special-education students, Kunin is also asking for four new special-ed technicians, for nearly $144,000, as well as a new part-time nursing position, at $36,000.

Kunin is asking for more than $38,000 in new stipends for coaches and other extra-curricular advisers. The coaching stipends would cover adding boys and girls basketball at the middle-school level and junior varsity ice hockey, and junior and varsity volleyball teams at the high school, among others.

The new budget also calls for providing three days of guidance services at Memorial Middle School and moving the costs of a literacy teacher at Skillin and the leadership stipends at Kaler and Skillin from grants to the local budget, at a cost of $100,000.

Under capital needs, Kunin said the schools must purchase a new bus, for $88,000, plus spend an more than $151,000 on technology upgrades, particularly at Brown, Dyer and Small schools. Other capital needs include $198,000 for various small projects at the elementary schools and nearly $170,000 for window replacement at Skillin and auditorium roof work at the high school.

Kunin said the impact of the new school budget on taxpayers could have been worse, but that South Portland benefited from an additional $15 million lawmakers agreed to provide last week, which gave the city nearly $609,000 more than originally expected.

There was no discussion following Kunin’s budget presentation Monday.

Voters will get the final say on the school budget in a June referendum. Meanwhile, the School Board will conduct a series of workshops before taking a final budget vote and passing that recommendation to the City Council for action.

The board will hold workshops on Tuesday and Thursday, March 22 and 24, and Tuesday and Thursday, March 29 and 31, at 6 p.m. The meetings will be held in the lecture hall at South Portland High School and will be open to the public.

During the March 22 workshop, the board plans to take up the coaching stipends, as well as the special education budget line, according to Chairman Dick Matthews.

South Portland Superintendent of Schools Ken Kunin introduced his first budget on Monday, March 14.