South Portland school chief told to build needs-based budget

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The School Board on Monday said it will honor the City Council’s request to produce a flat budget.

But there was no indication that the board would ultimately support it. And it won’t be the only spending plan drafted by school administrators.

Instead, the board directed the superintendent to develop several budget scenarios, including one that reflects the educational needs of the district.

Some board members said the School Department should advocate for a budget increase of 2.5 percent, since that’s what the City Council recommended to the city manager.

“I think it’s critical that whatever happens on the city or school side it’s equitable for the city as a whole,” board Vice Chairman Richard Carter said.

The district has an obligation to produce a budget that is best for children, Carter said, noting a projected increase in elementary enrollment and the potential for larger class sizes.

“I think it is time we do what is best for the kids, recognizing the economy is still difficult, (but) it is moving in the right direction,” he said.

Board member Richard Matthews said he understands that many residents are struggling during the recession, but noted that teachers and students are also struggling.

Matthews said classrooms are under-supplied and that schools are relying too much on parent teacher groups to provide funding for areas where funding has been cut, including field trips.

“I’ve seen the effects over the last few years,” he said. “I don’t think zero percent is in my thought process.”

But some board members were wary of defying the council, which sets the bottom line for school spending. The $39 million school budget accounts for more than two-thirds of all city spending.

Board member Sarah Goldberg said she thinks it would be fair for the schools to increase the budget by 2.5 percent. But she said she has also heard from residents who cannot afford tax increases.

“I am very uncomfortable going anything above zero, based on what I think the city can afford,” Goldberg said.

Superintendent Suzanne Godin said Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed biennial budget appears to contain additional funding for education. But exactly how much and the details of that funding won’t be known for months, she said.

Without any funding increases, Godin said significant staffing cuts would be needed to produce a no-increase budget amid rising costs and what administrators previously anticipated would be a $2.2 million reduction in state and federal revenue.

Godin said there would still be a $1 million shortfall, even after the district used $1.2 million in surplus funds.

The district is discussing the possibility of offering a retirement incentive, much like Portland schools have done over the last few years. But Godin said there’s no guarantee there are enough age-eligible employees to produce the necessary savings.

Godin said administrators would be able to provide a variety of budget options, including a plan based on needs for the district, which has lost 49 positions over the last five years.

“For me, needs means we need it to continue moving forward,” she said. “It would not be a pie-in-the-sky if we had unlimited resources.”

Board Chairman Ralph Baxter said councilors seemed to be open to reconsidering their no-increase directive if school officials believe they are cutting too deeply into the budget.

“It’s ultimately going to be our budget, and we need to advocate for it,” Baxter said. “I know we have an obligation to advocate for the School Department and the kids.”

Baxter said a needs-based budget has never been done in South Portland. But he said it would be beneficial to compare the district’s needs to a zero-increase budget, especially in advance of the annual validation referendum.

“I think this year especially, people need to see what we’re not doing,” he said.

The city and schools have scheduled another joint budget workshop on Wednesday, Feb. 23, at 5:45 p.m. in Council Chambers at City Hall.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net

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