2012-04-13 / Community

City wants a decrease in school side of budget

By Kristy Wagner
Staff Writer

South Portland School Board members defended their department’s proposed 2.2 percent budget increase for fiscal year 2013 after city councilors said they would like to see the increase drop.

The school board’s proposed budget increase would raise property taxes by 50 cents per $1,000 of valuation, but members of the board insist that much of the increase is necessary due to recent changes in the overall curriculum.

“The board took a very stringent and strong approach to budgeting this year,” said Tappan Fitzgerald, chairman of the school board. “We met with the superintendent before the process. We even looked at a needs-based budget.”

Fitzgerald added that South Portland is considered a school system “on the cutting edge” and “looks to be a leader in education.”

“We understand things cost money and we also try to be proactive and look outside of the budget to try to get funding on our own,” Fitzgerald said.

He and Superintendent Suzanne Godin said the school department uses surplus funds to offset the budget and schools attempt to use funding and revenue outside of the budget as well. The proposed budget presented at the April 4 city council meeting listed $4.7 million in total available revenue, which included $1 million in undesignated surplus funds.

Godin outlined the reductions that would have been necessary if the board had proposed a budget with no increases. For there to be no increase, the board would have had to cut 14 positions from the school department, along with reduced spending on high school textbooks, police coverage at school events and limiting library related spending at elementary and middle schools, among other reductions.

Fitzgerald said the school board eliminated two high school teachers and two library clerk positions and added a curriculum director position that the board eliminated six years ago.

“We are not in the same educational environment today that students were in even five to 10 years ago,” Fitzgerald said, adding that South Portland schools have been building their science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) initiatives to better prepare students for the future.

The new coordinator position sparked questions from councilors asking how vital a curriculum coordinator is to the school system at this time.

“The curriculum developer position was the first thing that struck me,” said Councilor Tom Blake said.

Godin said the school board eliminated the position from the department budget six years ago to reduce costs. The cost of hiring a curriculum director for fiscal year 2013 is budgeted at $79,646. The curriculum director will be part of the school district’s central office.

“Who has been filling that role since then and why is this year different from two to four years ago?” Blake asked.

Godin explained how the state has adopted the common core curriculum and it has required that the school system align its core to those standards.

“That curriculum work is being done on the backs of teachers and administrators,” Godin said.

Maine currently aligns its curriculum to Maine Learning Results, which maine.gov describes as “parameters for essential instruction.”

“This coordinator position is one of the core things to drive (common core standards) and new learning to the rest of the system,” Fitzgerald said.

Godin said the transition to common core standards reflects a shift in the way the state assesses and reports student achievement. She said because of the curriculum transition, the school department saw the need to bring back the curriculum coordinator position.

“We are at a very different place than we were six years ago,” Godin said. “This has actually been a position that has been discussed at the board level for a number of years and the board felt like this was a priority.”

Councilor Tom Livingston questioned funding a new curriculum director.

“The timing may be not great,” he said. “With the large financial burden that’s coming up we are trying to keep taxes down as much as we can. I am keeping an eye out for the citizens.”

The “financial burden” Livingston spoke of is the upcoming high school renovation project, which councilors and the project’s building committee discussed later on in the council meeting.

“(A) 2.2 (percent increase) is not a number that we took lightly. There was solid debate around what we feel is a substantial increase,” Fitzgerald said. “If there were items we felt were not necessary then they wouldn’t be there.”

Other personnel requests included a part-time office clerk for Small School at $18,727, a stipend of $2,053 for a club advisor at the high school, a stipend of $6,160 for a high school robotics team advisor and a part-time community communication clerk at $21,075.

The board also proposed an increase of 17.1 percent for transportation and buses, which was the second highest increase among locally supported programs. The total operating budget also accounts for a $525,000 bond interest payment on the high school project.

Livingston said he felt the education budget needed revising before being presented to voters.

“I would appreciate it if you really did some soul searching to get this down a bit for the citizens,” he said.

Councilor Rosemarie De Angelis shared Livingston’s opinion about the board decreasing its budget.

“I am concerned about the 50 cents (tax rate increase),” she said. “This feels high, that’s where I am.”

Mayor Patricia Smith asked Godin if the board expected a significant budget increase next year based on the current budget increase proposed for this year.

“We base it on need. We are anticipating that next year’s enrollment will remain stable at the elementary level, increase at the middle school level and remain stable at the high school level,” Godin said.

The city council will meet with the school board and superintendent for a workshop on April 23; the education budget goes to referendum May 15.

The detailed education budget is available on the South Portland School Department’s website at www.spsd.org.

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