PORTLAND, Maine — The School Department’s unprecedented effort to solicit budget advice from the public was met with a middling response, but the superintendent is undaunted.
On Thursday, about a dozen city residents met with local politicians and school teachers, administrators and board members at King Middle School for a town hall-style meeting to discuss next year’s school budget.
After a brief introduction by Caulk, the audience members broke into separate groups to attend their choice of two presentations on the district’s priorities: core curriculum, innovation and infrastructure, plus three sessions on stimulating progress among English language learners, struggling students and “gifted and talented.” Each session lasted 30 minutes.
Kristan Drzewiecki, whose children attend King Middle School and Portland High School, said she attended the meeting because teachers are becoming overwhelmed by large class sizes.
She added that she was disappointed by the meeting’s low turnout.
“There’s maybe a dozen parents here out of 7,000 students,” she said. “It’s too bad. People like to complain, but when it comes to participating in the process … where are they?”
After the meeting, Caulk said he wasn’t discouraged by the turnout.
“This is new for our community,” he said. “Once this becomes part of the yearly budget process, we’re going to see it grow by leaps and bounds.”
This year the district has also made available a “Neighbor-to-Neighbor Toolkit” — an online guide to the budget process that is meant to encourage public participation and solicit feedback. The toolkit can be found at portlandschools.org.
Caulk said he has received some feedback from parent-teacher organizations that used the toolkit. District spokeswoman Shoshana Hoose said Monday she didn’t know the exact number of responses.
The budget process begins each year in the fall and gains momentum in March, when the superintendent presents a proposed budget to the School Board for review. Then, in April, a board-approved budget goes before the City Council. If accepted by the city, voters will either approve or reject the budget by a referendum in May.
The annual budget, which is approximately $98 million, is built from a variety of sources: 75 percent from local sources, such as property taxes, 16 percent from state subsidies, 4 percent from food service sales, and 5 percent from out-of-district tuition and other sources.
The largest share of budget expenses, 79 percent, goes toward salaries and benefits for faculty and staff. The rest of the budget covers debt repayment, facility maintenance, books, supplies, utilities and more.