2012-04-27 / Front Page

Compromise still wanted on school budget

By Kristy Wagner
Staff Writer

The South Portland City Council and members of the board of education put their heads together to try to amend the proposed 2013 school budget increase. The council asked board members April 4 to revise the school budget, saying a 2.2 percent increase is too high. Board of education members said they wanted to keep the 2.2 percent increase, while council members and a few residents said they wanted to see more cuts.

The school board met at city hall April 19 to discuss revising the budget, and agreed that any more cuts to the 2.2 percent increase would negatively affect South Portland students’ learning environment. On top of the 2.2 percent increase in the operating budget, there is also a 1.53 percent tax increase to account for the $525,000 bond interest payment on high school renovations that has already been approved by voters.

“Students are not learning today the way they were 10, and even five, years ago,” said Tappan Fitzgerald, chairman of the board of education.

Fitzgerald said paying the bond interest on the high school project early would save taxpayers money in the long run.

“While (1.53 percent increase for a bond payment) is unavoidable, please understand that 1.53 has already been voted on by voters and this leaves us the 2.2 operating budget,” Fitzgerald said.

Richard Carter, board of education member, asked councilors not to compound the 1.53 percent increase for the bond payment with the 2.2 percent operating budget.

“We need to talk about the final number because that will be our tax increase,” said Councilor Tom Blake. “To take individual pieces out is incorrect.”

Blake added that for students and residents to move forward some sacrifices would have to be made on both sides.

Councilor Jerry Jalbert said the current school budget increase came down to a policy question, which he outlined in a handout he distributed to attendees at Monday’s workshop. Jalbert’s handout cited city debt refinanced in the fall 2011 due to lower interest rates, which he said saved the city $197,769 in interest payments. He said the city also saved $200,000 on the principal due to refinancing, which brought total savings to $397,769.

“The policy question is this: Do the taxpayers of South Portland get to realize the savings from the lower interest rate on the debt refinancing and pay off debt or do we spend the savings?” Jalbert stated in his handout.

Jalbert theorized that if the proposed $3.8 million education budget was decreased by $397,769 in savings, then the total tax rate increase, including school and city budgets, would only be 2.9 percent. His calculations provided room for an increase in the school operating budget and accounted for the cost of the high school project bond, thus benefiting taxpayers by allowing them to realize the savings from refinancing debt in 2011.

Elizabeth Canarie, student representative on the board of education and senior at South Portland High School, addressed the council, and said that from a student perspective more cuts to the budget would be detrimental to the learning environment.

“Education is changing and I don’t want to see South Portland fall behind,” Canarie said. “This (increase) is necessary for our students. What I want is for South Portland to be a community to look back on and be proud of – we need help from you (city council), so please invest in us.”

Councilor Rosemarie De Angelis said she has always been an advocate for education in South Portland, but the city has needs other than education that taxpayers’ money funds.

“We’re desperate to add firefighters, desperate to add police to our streets,” De Angelis said. “Everything we look at (on the school budget) impacts students; well, everything the council looks at (on city budget) impacts residents.”

De Angelis said the city struggled to make cuts to the municipal operating budget and could sympathize with the board of education’s struggle to make difficult cuts to its own budget, but she said she was “frustrated” that board members have not moved on the 2.2 percent increase since the council asked for a revision.

“We’re back here without an ounce of movement and without any consideration to move,” De Angelis said.

Board of education member Richard Matthews said he wanted the council to reconsider its request for more cuts to be made to the school budget.

“I am asking you to support the 2.2 percent again,” Matthews said. “We are affecting children. We went through the 2.2 percent several times. We need that (percentage increase) to move forward.”

South Portland resident Marilyn Riley said she was impressed with “the passion of school board members,” but she did not agree with the budget.

“Something needs to be cut, cutting whole positions is not always necessary,” she said. “I would ask the city council to have the school board run the school at a 1.8 percent budget increase.”

Resident Ralph Baxter said he thought the high school bond interest is a separate piece of the budget, but both the school and council needed to discuss and revise the 2.2 percent increase.

“It is time to get this thing done and to be reasonable,” he said.

James Gilboy, a member of the board of education, asked council members to specify a certain number or percentage increase they would approve.

Mayor Patricia Smith said she would like to see the 2.2 percent increase lowered to 1.9 or 2 percent.

“We’re just looking for a little bit of movement,” she said.

Councilor Maxine Beecher said she would like to see a decrease in the 3.73 percent total increase that includes the bond interest costs.

“Between the bond payment and the operating budget, I would like to see (the budget) down to 3 or 3.2 and I would like to meet again (with councilors and school board members),” she said.

Smith said the council and the board of education were coming from “different places” and she wanted the two entities to meet in a circle to come to a final decision together.

The board of education planned to meet for a special board meeting on April 25 to discuss amending the budget further. The board also planned to meet at 7:30 p.m. that same evening at Memorial Middle School for a workshop about the budget.

By the end of Monday’s workshop, the majority of councilors, with Councilor Tom Coward absent, said they might be able to agree with a 1.2 percent increase if the board could find areas to cut in the proposed operating budget.

“(1.2 percent increase) is higher than what I am thinking, but I think I could be convinced,” Blake said.

Jalbert agreed with Blake.

“Based upon the numbers given, I would be comfortable with a 1.1 percent increase, but if we have two or three councilors (comfortable) with 1.2, I could live with 1.2,” Jalbert said.

Staff Writer Kristy Wagner can be reached at 282-4337, ext. 219.

Return to top