Superintendent's Notebook: Portland school budget hike an investment in our future

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The past six months have brought lots of good news for the Portland Public Schools.

Our students’ test scores rose dramatically. We received a clean bill of health from our auditors. The School Board adopted a comprehensive plan framework to guide the district. We were awarded the largest competitive grant in the school system’s history to improve the high school experience through student-centered work.  

For all of our successes, we still have much more to do.

My list of greatest needs includes adopting a system-wide curriculum to bring consistency to teaching throughout the district, expanding our pre-kindergarten program, investing in technology to support learning and teaching, and rehabilitating or replacing some of our elementary school buildings.  Some of those needs have been ignored for years, resulting in increased costs.

I presented the School Board with a proposed $94.9 million budget for fiscal year 2013 that provides the building blocks for a vibrant public school system and invests in our future.

My budget represents a 3.65 percent increase over this year’s budget. With state and federal funds falling far short of our needs, Portland taxpayers would be asked to carry a greater burden: an $85 rise in property taxes on a $250,000 home.  

Here are the major reasons why we need to spend more money:

• Continue implementing a multi-year plan to align our academic programs across schools and to provide more professional development.

• Invest in cutting-edge computers and other technology for the classroom, and purchase equipment that makes district operations more efficient.

• Begin the process of seeking funds to replace Hall Elementary School by fiscal 2016, and to renovate Presumpscot, Longfellow, Reiche and Lyseth elementary schools.

• Fulfill our obligation through our contract with the Portland Education Association to pay for teachers’ “step” increases, at a cost of more than $918,000. Other salary increases in my budget cost more than $440,000.  

• Cover a projected 7 percent rise in health insurance costs, totaling $715,500.

• Pay for nearly $2.1 million in salaries that had been funded by the federal Jobs Bill.

Due to careful management of our budget in the past two years, we will end fiscal 2012 with a fund balance of approximately $2.2 million. I recommend using roughly half of this balance, $1 million, to fund strategic initiatives. We recognize that this is an issue that is decided at the discretion of the Portland City Council and respectfully request their consideration on this matter.  

In previous columns, I described major grants that our district has received in the past three years: a $3.4 million federal School Improvement Grant for Riverton Elementary School, a $2.7 million SIG for East End Community School and a $5.2 million grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation Grant for the Pathways to Success program in our high schools. Those grants will supplement the funds provided by local, state and federal taxes and create more opportunities for student-centered learning.
 
My proposed budget is now before the School Board. After they approve a budget, it will go to the City Council and then to Portland residents for a referendum vote. You can read the proposed budget and follow its progress at http://www2.portlandschools.org/school-budget.  

I encourage you to get involved.

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James C. Morse Sr. is Portland’s superintendent of schools. His column runs monthly in The Forecaster and on theforecaster.net. He can be reached at morsej@portlandschools.org.

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