Portland school officials bring $94.9M budget to City Council

Posted April 23, 2012, at 8:49 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Portland public schools officials defended a proposed fiscal year 2013 budget that calls for $5 million in increased spending Monday night.

Speaking before the City Council, Portland School Board Chairwoman Kate Snyder, board Finance Committee Chairman Justin Costa and Superintendent James Morse described the draft budget as the city’s first opportunity to reinvest in schools after a 2007 spending crisis and several years mired in a recession. Monday marked the delivery of the proposed school budget to city leaders after the numbers were approved by the school board nearly two weeks ago.

“This year feels like a real transition away from crisis management to really building toward the future,” Snyder told the council. “We’re losing [federal stimulus] money, we have contractual increases with our unions that we haven’t had for several years, we’re trying to maintain the staff we have and we’re trying to strategically invest in student learning.”

Over the period from fiscal year 2008 through fiscal year 2012, the district cut 100 positions, Snyder said. The proposed 2013 budget of $94.9 million represents the system’s first requested spending increase after three years of decreases, from $91.3 million in 2010 down to $89.4 million in this fiscal year.

However, Snyder acknowledged that drops in state subsidies forced Portland property tax payers to absorb more and more of those costs over that same stretch. The economic difficulties came on the heels of a 2007 scandal in which the district had a budget overrun of nearly $2.5 million, costing then-superintendent Mary Jo O’Connor and Finance Director Richard Paulson their jobs.

The spending plan on the table for the fiscal year starting July 1 would keep staffing level, cutting eight positions and replacing them with eight others.

The budget calls for $100,000 more to expand pre-kindergarten in the district, as well as $71,000 more for adult education, with a goal of cutting in half the approximately 140-person waiting list for English language classes.

“That’s 140 adults who could potentially be working and contributing to the tax base of the city of Portland, but it’s difficult for them to find work when they don’t speak English,” Morse told the council Monday, adding, “For Portland, a city with 54 percent poverty, early childhood [education] is an investment into the future.”

Morse said pre-kindergarten classes at Riverton Elementary School, which he said serves the “greatest concentration of poverty and immigrants,” have helped increase academic performance at the school “fourfold.” He also said the nearly 500 Portland High School students who advocated for retention of that school’s Latin program convinced him to maintain it in the final budget plan after previously considering cuts to the program.

The council’s Finance Committee is scheduled to meet at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at City Hall, where the panel will consider voting on both the school budget and the $206.8 million proposed municipal spending plan.

The larger City Council is scheduled to vote on the school budget on May 7, with a public referendum on the figures slated for May 15.

In its current form, the proposed school budget alone would trigger a 3.68 percent increase in property taxes, or about $85.85 tacked onto the annual property tax bill for a home valued at $250,000.

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