Superintendent's Notebook: Budget season begins early for Portland schools

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Budget season comes around just like hunting season, except it begins in January, lasts through May and the game being hunted is numbers, not deer.

You can prepare for hunting season by going to L.L. Bean or Cabela’s and purchasing the latest all-weather gear, hand warmers or flame-orange vest. Preparing for budget season requires research, input from as many interested parties as possible and balancing the needs of the students against the funding available.

What prompts me to write about budgets before the January snow? The loss of state funding to the city of Portland for our schools.

The recession has robbed state coffers of another $200 million and Gov. John Baldacci has directed his commissioners to cut expenses. State Education Commissioner Susan Gendron is working to meet the governor’s directive. Sometime this winter, the governor and the Legislature will agree to lower state funding for education, as well as all other state departments.

Gendron has told Maine’s school superintendents to multiply last year’s planned curtailment by a factor of 1.4 for an estimate of how much state aid we will lose this year. Using that formula, Portland is likely to face a more than $2.5 million cut.

Mind you, all Maine school systems face difficult scenarios. South Portland and Scarborough are likely to lose more than $1 million each. But no school system has been asked to cut as much as Portland.

Anticipating the worst, the Portland School Committee directed me to prepare for a loss of $2.7 million in state revenue. I will present my recommendations for those cuts at the School Committee’s business meeting on Nov. 18 at 7 p.m. in Room 250 of Casco Bay High School.

The School Committee was right to start working on the cuts now, even though we won’t know the exact amount of our lost revenue until January. If we waited, we could never come up with more than $2.5 million in cuts during the current school year.

The loss is staggering. Our legislative delegation is working hard to reduce our loss of state funding. School personnel are working hard to come up with a list of spending reductions. Every cut will result in some loss of student services, materials and a better-prepared workforce.

Information coming out of Augusta indicates that next year will be far worse. As we build the 2010-2011 budget, we anticipate a loss of between $5 million and $7 million.

Sometimes, history has lessons to teach us. During the recession of the early 1990s, Maine’s Republican governor and Democratic Legislature worked together to combine state aid cuts with a temporary increase of 1 cent on the sales tax to support education. The penny increase included a sunset provision and automatically disappeared in a few, short years.

A penny today would raise $240 million dollars. Shouldn’t we look at both cuts and revenue?

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jamesmorse_new.JPGJames C. Morse Sr. is Portland’s superintendent of schools. His column runs monthly in The Forecaster and on He can be reached at, and you can follow him @jamesmorsesr on Twitter.