2013-05-17 / Community

School could bail out city if state hands down cuts

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND – South Portland’s school board and city council have, at times, struggled to remain on the same page in recent years. However, if state budget cuts slice $2.8 million from the municipal budget this year, as proposed in Gov. Paul LePage’s biennial budget, the school department may consider coming to the city’s aid.

The school board and city council met in a joint workshop May 9 to continue negotiating their respective budgets. The council informally approved the $43 million school budget, which then passed with a unanimous school board vote on Monday, May 13. Next, the council will officially vote to give its final stamp of approval Monday, May 20, before the budget goes to voters next month.

The $28.8 million municipal budget is not moving along as quickly. City Manager Jim Gailey said a “pause” is currently in effect, as city councilors and staff wait to see what the ramifications the state’s biennial budget has on municipalities around Maine.

Mayor Tom Blake said if the council was to move on the budget, send it to voters and then be faced with the elimination of the municipal revenue-sharing program, a possible $2.8 million hit, South Portland would be “decimated.” Blake guessed 35 to 40 layoffs may be necessary in that scenario.

“On the city side, we are stuck because Augusta is stuck. We’re kind of in limbo. This is my sixth budget I’ve done and I’ve never had to encounter this problem before. I feel like we’re kind of helpless,” Blake said.

Both councilors and school board members appeared split on whether the school department could help the city if the state enacts a significant cut to municipal funds. School board member James Gilboy supported Blake’s idea to explore the possibility of school board assistance if significant cuts affect the city’s budget.

“I have my eyes wide open to finding a solution that maintains the services in the city as well as maintains the programs in our school system, rather than closing the door and saying ‘No, you guys fend for yourselves,’ because I don’t think that’s the right approach,” Gilboy said.

Councilor Jerry Jalbert disagreed, explaining the two sides have “different missions” and therefore consolidation would be impossible. School board Chairman Rick Carter shared Jalbert’s view.

“I don’t see how we hold the schools back as the savings bank if the city has a huge cut. I’m having a problem with how you merge those two,” Carter said.

Whatever solution the school board and city council find, former school board member Jeffrey Selser said the public hopes the two sides can put past differences behind them.

“I want you to wipe the slate clean. There’s been a lot of bad blood between the city council and the school board over the years and, quite frankly, the public is sick of it,” Selser said.

The source of the disagreements has varied over the years, from budget negotiations to, most recently, the school board’s decision to block the council’s appointment of Alan Livingston to the high school building committee. Selser said if the two sides can start fresh, the process will be easier.

“All of your thoughts and actions should begin with the premise that the other person is telling the truth and is honorable. If you begin with that premise and then move forward from that, I think we’ll have much better discourse,” Selser said.

For most of the two-hour workshop, councilors and school board members discussed the school board’s financial reports that came as a result of the council’s budget questions. Jalbert said he wasn’t sure about how the school board arrived at its budget each year, but after looking line-by-line through each of the more 600 employees, he was satisfied with the result.

“I appreciate all the extra effort,” Jalbert said.

Carter said although finding answers to councilors’ questions was labor-intensive, he was also pleased with the process.

“I don’t take it as offense; I don’t take it personally. I think it’s a positive step that the council is looking at this and saying here are our questions, putting them forward and giving us the opportunity to address them,” Carter said.

Should the council give final approval of the school budget, a voter referendum will take place Tuesday, June 11. Meanwhile, numerous tax bills have been proposed in Augusta as alternatives to LePage’s biennial budget proposal.

Whatever happens in coming weeks and months, Councilor Patti Smith said the city of South Portland will find a way to make the best of a bad situation.

“If hard times hit our city we will be resilient. We will figure out a way to get it done. We may have a lot of hurt coming toward us, but we have to get through it,” Smith said.

Want to comment on this story? Login to our website at sentry.mainelymediallc.com and let us know your thoughts.

Return to top