2013-05-03 / Front Page

City, school sides clash in budgets

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND – The South Portland City Council and Board of Education resolved at the beginning of 2013 to work more closely together. But as a difficult budgeting season moves into the final stages, tensions between the two organizations have resurfaced.

The council and school board have been reviewing their respective budgets for the 2013-2014 fiscal year since March. In early April, the two organizations came together at a public hearing, where some councilors questioned the board’s accounting method.

The councilors’ questions stemmed from comments by Albert DiMillo, a retired CPA and frequent critic of both the municipal and school budgets. DiMillo said the school department has consistently over-budgeted through the years by rolling unspent money allocated for staff into reserve accounts.

Councilor Melissa Linscott shared some of DiMillo’s concerns. She said the complex ‘ nature of the school budget means the use of taxpayer dollars is “not always transparent,” and she was concerned about a “consistent over budgeting” for staff.

At an April 8 workshop, the council authorized City Manager Jim Gailey to request financial reports from the school board. The documents provide a detailed report of all budget variances for the past three years, a list of employees who have retired or left the district, and a description of the methodology used to develop the payroll budget.

The school board met in a workshop on April 29 and submitted the reports to Gailey Tuesday, April 30. The two organizations will meet again in a joint workshop on Thursday, May 9, according to a letter from Board Chairman Rick Carter.

Carter said in an interview “a significant amount of staff time” was needed to compile the financial reports, but he had no problem with the council’s request for more detailed information. In each of his nine years on the board, Carter said the council has requested additional information on the school budget in some form. The council has the authority to approve the budget before it is sent to voters in a June vote, but it is the school board’s responsibility to go through individual line items.

“The questions change year to year, but the fact that there are questions doesn’t change, as it should,” Carter said. “As a citizen, I wouldn’t want the council to sit there, say, OK’ and move on.”

Not every member of the school board agreed with Carter’s view. Richard Matthews said he was confused by the council’s request for the numbers because the school department’s bookkeeping methods already allow for transparency.

“I’m pretty frustrated with that. We’re an open book,” Matthews said.

Matthews voted against the proposed school budget because he felt it was too low. The budget passed the board’s approval by a 4-2 vote on April 3.

The council requested at a February workshop no more than a 0.6 percent increase in the school budget this year. The proposed budget is a 0.65 percent increase. Matthews said he supported an increase closer to 0.92 percent, which he said would fall outside the council guidance, but provide the district the resources it needs.

“I respect the council, but my job is to make sure the kids get what they need and the teachers get what they need,” Matthews said.

Budget tensions come on the heels of another event that has caused friction between the city council and school board. In December, the council nominated Alan Livingston and Melissa Linscott as representatives to the South Portland High School Building Committee. The committee is made up of school department members, councilors and residents to provide input on the ongoing construction project.

Livingston was a member of the committee until 2011, when he said he was “shocked” to lose his spot after a meeting with then-mayor Rosemarie De Angelis, Superintendent Suzanne Godin and Building Committee Chairman Ralph Baxter. Livingston was kicked off the committee, he said, in part because he wanted to install a laundry room for the athletic programs against the wishes of the rest of the committee members.

Livingston said he has attended the committee meetings since that time as member of the public, and occasionally asked questions or offered input.

Carter said he did not want to rehash the events of two years ago, but he respected the decisions of those involved and therefore did not bring the appointment back before the board.

In March, the school board approved Linscott’s appointment, but did not act on the council’s recommendation to reinstate Livingston. That prompted Mayor Tom Blake to read a statement at the board’s April meeting.

“Refusing to even discuss the nomination openly is an insult to the entire council, Councilor Livingston and especially the public who put Councilor Livingston in office,” Blake said.

Livingston still strongly believes there should be a laundry facility for the high school athletic teams in the renovated building, and believes he was “wronged” two years ago. But as a former school board member and current councilor, Livingston said he also understands the need to sometimes adhere to the wishes of a larger group.

Livingston said when he moved from the school board to the council three years ago, he hoped to bridge the gulf that had emerged between the two organizations.

“This is not helping anyone, obviously. It’s too bad,” Livingston said.

Carter put a motion in front of the school board at the April meeting to approve Livingston’s appointment, but no board members seconded the motion or offered any discussion on the matter. Carter said the issue has not been discussed since.

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