South Portland schools told to produce a flat budget

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SOUTH PORTLAND — On the heels of last year’s uncertain budget process, School Board Chairman Ralph Baxter pressed the City Council on Monday to provide a clear directive on an acceptable fiscal 2012 budget.

“I may not like the number you give us, but we’re leaving here with a number,” Baxter said. “That’s the most important thing for us here tonight.”

Baxter and the rest of the board got their guidance: produce a flat budget that maintains an obligation to begin funding the new high school.

That obligation is expected to be a 14-cent hike to the tax rate, or about $500,000.

The City Council sets the bottom line on school spending. The schools’ $39 million budget now accounts for about 68 percent of total city spending.

But unlike last year, where board members left the meeting exasperated and trying to sort out the guidance, ranging from no increase to more than a 1 percent increase, the board seemed pleased with this year’s process.

The silver lining for the board was the council’s commitment to meet regularly throughout the budget process in case the guidance needs to be changed.

“If it’s an absolute impossibility, then absolutely, you should come back to us,” Councilor Maxine Beecher said.

Mayor Rosemarie De Angelis said she and Baxter met for two hours on Tuesday night, “belly up to my fireplace,” to lay the framework for the budget meeting.

The School Department presented the council with information comparing previously approved budget amounts to the district’s actual expenses for the first time in recent memory.

Superintendent of Schools Suzanne Godin then explained how the district came to acquire $2.8 million in undesignated surplus and $2.7 million in designated surplus.

Despite the recession, the schools have run a surplus in each of the last five years. Although the surplus is greater than 3 percent of the budget, Godin said the state has waived that cap until 2015.

Councilor Tom Coward suggested the district allocate $1 million of the surplus to the $47 million high school renovation and expansion, which will impact taxpayers the most in 2015.

“In future years, we’re going to be facing tax increases even if we cut our budget, solely because of the high school bond,” Coward said. “I think we need to feel the pain now to save a little in the future.

But board member Richard Matthews said “using that surplus is kind of like cutting our own throats,” predicting a more difficult budget next year, when the additional federal funding runs out.

Councilor Tom Blake said surpluses are more important in the city budget, since they’re considered by credit agencies.

Godin said a $1.9 million surplus in fiscal 2008 stemmed from a wave of retirements, which saved $500,000, and nearly $890,000 in concessions from unions.

Godin said a $1.3 million surplus in fiscal 2009 stemmed from a “soft freeze” on the budget that eliminated professional development, field trips and a majority of nonessential supplies, as well as federal stimulus money that offset a $874,000 curtailment from the state.

A “hard freeze” on the fiscal 2010 budget, along with a larger-than-expected state education subsidy, produced a $157,000 surplus, Godin said.

From fiscal 2008-2010, Godin said the district has eliminated nearly 50 positions, but has had only one layoff. Another seven positions have been supported with federal funds, which expire in September.

The state education subsidy to the district, meanwhile, has dropped from $4.7 million in fiscal 2008 to a projected $1.6 million next year, she said.

Since next year’s projected state subsidy is a reduction of $2.2 million over the current year, Godin said the district must deal with a projected $1 million deficit, once $1.2 million in federal jobs money is accounted for.

There are three task forces working on plans to reduce spending. One group recently recommended realigning custodial staff, eliminating eight positions, to save about $400,000, while two other groups are exploring pay-to-play and potential middle school savings.

The council and board left the meeting committed to meeting several more times before a final school budget is presented to the board on April 11 and to the city on April 25.

“We really want to see if we can increase communication throughout (the process),” De Angelis said.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or