South Portland tweaks school budget to avoid further tax hike

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The proposed city budget for fiscal year 2015 will likely raise taxes by a maximum of 3.5 percent.

City councilors and the School Board met for a joint workshop Wednesday evening, and reached consensus on budgets that were originally proposed April 9.

On the school side, in response to a $90,000 expenditure increase, the proposed school budget for fiscal year 2015 will have one less special education ed tech position, and reduced spending for special education legal fees and audiology services. 

The revised school proposal allows the city to hold to the previously agreed upon tax increase of 3.5 percent, although Mayor Jerry Jalbert noted Thursday that the city assessor will not finish the most recent city valuation until this summer.

The school budget was the major topic of discussion Wednesday, because most major changes to the city budget will be discussed in a City Council workshop on Monday, May 12. But Jalbert was confident that few major changes would be made to the previously proposed $27.9 million city spending plan

“As it stands now, whether it’s the school or city side, there’s no reduction of services and no layoffs,” he said.

Estimates from Wednesday evening would increase the property tax rate from $16.70 per $1,000 of assessed value to a maximum $17.35. City Finance Director Greg L’Heureux said he hoped the mil rate would decline after the new valuation, possibly to $17.25, or a 3.3 percent tax increase.

The School Board reached consensus on the adjustments to the $44.8 million school budget in a workshop Tuesday, after a presentation from Superintendent of Schools Suzanne Godin.

Godin’s latest numbers showed a $62,000 reduction in state subsidy and a $70,000 increase in mandated charter school tuition. Godin also noted bond and insurance savings of about $42,000. 

Godin offered a spreadsheet to the board for potential reductions, cuts, and balance increases to solve the problems, including reducing library and technology spending, the transportation budget, maintenance supplies and athletic services and equipment.

She also floated reconfiguring a fifth-grade band teacher position or middle school tech integrator. All suggestions were based, Godin said, on analysis of areas where the budget typically over-allocates resources. 

The board also discussed increasing the local tax contribution to make up the additional funds, from 3.5 percent to 3.7 percent.

The board eventually rallied behind member Richard Carter’s suggestion to reduce the special education legal fees, and audiology services expenditures by $10,000 each, and cutting $45,000 meant for a proposed ed tech position.

The remaining gap would be added to the budget’s tax request, but retains the previously agreed upon tax increase of approximately 3.5 percent. 

The proposal leaves in place three other new ed tech positions, based on Godin’s enrollment projections that show an increase in the number of incoming kindergartners with special needs who will require one-on-one support.

The increase in charter school tuition is the result of state law that requires municipalities to pay for students in the district who choose to attend charter schools, like Baxter Academy in Portland, Godin explained.

After the original school budget proposal was introduced to the City Council on April 9, Godin said she learned that nine more students in the district would attend charter schools, adding to the 10 already committed. The $70,000 estimate to account for the nine raises the charter school tuition to almost $200,000 in the proposed budget. 

The numbers baffled most board members.

“It’s hard to see what I see as money being stolen from public education,” board member James Gilroy said. “I’m just scratching my head.”

“Charter schools are here to stay; they’re not going away,” Godin replied. “What we’d hope we’d continue to advocate for, is changes in funding mechanism.”

Both budgets go to the City Council for approval on May 19, and the school budget goes to a voter referendum on June 10. 

Shelby Carignan can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow her on Twitter: @shelbycarignan.