2013-04-12 / Front Page

South Portland residents: school budget too low

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — School administrators, board members, city staff and city councilors have reviewed South Portland’s 2013-2014 budget for weeks, hoping to trim the figure down to acceptable size for the city’s taxpayers. But if residents’ comments at a public forum on Wednesday, April 3 reflect voter opinion, many South Portland taxpayers think the school budget is too low.

Board of Education Chairman Richard Carter presented the city council with a $43 million proposed school budget at Wednesday’s public hearing that calls for $37 million in taxpayer funds.

The city council asked the school board at a Feb. 27 workshop to limit the increase on the tax rate to no more than six-tenths of a percent this year. The 2013-2014 school budget increases the tax rate 0.63 percent, or 6.5 cents per $1,000 of valuation, a $12.68 increase on the median property tax bill of a home worth $195,000.

The school budget would cut three part-time positions — a guidance clerk both in the middle school and high school and a high school English teacher — for a total savings of $89,000. The proposal also will not add an $84,000 grant writer position Superintendent Suzanne Godin included in her initial suggestion. However, the proposed school budget would keep the South Portland High School hockey program, originally scheduled to be cut to save $34,000.

Although the school board approved the proposed budget in a special meeting just before the public forum, Carter said he was concerned with the final result.

After voters approved the $40 million high school renovation bond in 2010, Carter said, many board members and city councilors promised they “would not decimate the school department in order to renovate the high school.”

“Now that the payments are coming due, I believe we are doing just that,” Carter said, “And I strongly urge the council to set the high school referendum aside from the budget both on the city side as well as the school side.”

Former school board member Jeffrey Selser said insufficient budget increases in recent years have not kept pace with the needs of the city because the budgeting process is flawed. Selser said the city manager and superintendent create proposals based on guidance that “can be nothing but arbitrary” because the budget review process does not begin until councilors have already decided upon a desired number.

Selser said the city cannot follow its motto of “Moving Forward” without allocating more funding. He suggested alternative mottos for the city if it does not expand the budget on both sides, including “Some People Say We’re OK” and “Maybe Next Year It Will be Better.”

Some speakers at the public forum, including Attila Delisle, said the South Portland schools are a major reason they chose the city to start a family.

“If it comes down to saving me a few dollars or sacrificing the things that make my house a home, please let me invest in the future of South Portland,” Delisle said.

South Portland resident Albert DiMillo said over the past decade, the school board has consistently allocated more money than it spent, meaning the starting point for the board is already too high. If those past errors were fixed, DiMillo said, the proposed version of the school budget should represent a decrease in the tax rate.

“It’s been wrong for nine years in a row. If you allow this budget to go through it will be the 10th year in a row that they budget incorrectly. This is just simple math,” DiMillo said.

City Manager Jim Gailey presented the $28.8 million 2013-2014 municipal budget at the public forum that was unchanged from the previous version he originally put before the council in March. The budget calls for an additional $214,000 in property tax revenue, which would add six cents per $1,000 of valuation the municipal tax rate.

The municipal budget takes $80,000 allocated for paving out of the budget, ends South Portland’s membership in the Greater Portland Council of Governments at a savings of $25,000, and ends the city’s $40,000 contribution to the Visiting Nurses Association and Home Health Visiting Nurses.

The council will continue reviewing the municipal budget with individual departments in workshop meetings this month. It is scheduled to vote to approve the budget sometime in May.

Voters will then decide on the school budget in a referendum election Tuesday, June 11. Mayor Tom Blake said the process this year has been complicated by uncertainty surrounding Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed biennial state budget, which proposes a number of revenue decreases for Maine municipalities and school districts.

“It looks like right now we’re on track, but we still have the elephant in the room, which is Augusta,” Blake said. “Hopefully, a month from now we’ll have a better handle on where they’re going.”

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