2014-12-26 / Front Page

School budget outlook ‘abysmal’

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — It’s not unfair to say the school budget forecast looks grim every year at about this time, when city councilors and school board members first sit down to hammer out parameters for the coming fiscal year.

However, this time out, city leaders are especially concerned that smallgovernment euphoria fueled by the re-election of Gov. Paul LePage, along with Republican gains in the state legislature, could result in a cost-cutting mandate targeting public education.

“I think we all know what this administration has attempted to do [in the past], and I don’t think that will change in January,” said City Manager Jim Gailey.

For Mayor Linda Cohen, who has a decades-long career as a city clerk in South Portland and Portland before entering elective office, the current climate conjures up visions of the so-called Peleski initiative of about a decade ago. Among other things, the initiative drove state spending on public schools to be dramatically reined in.

‘This is going to be a tough budget year,” said Cohen. “Frankly, I’m more concerned about the budget this year than I was about Peleski.

Let’s share money where we can,” Coehen told the school board. “We better be ready for every place we can save.”

Superintendent Susan Godin, entering her final months on the job before retiring June 30, said that, at this point, trying to get workable budget numbers, “is like throwing a dart board at the wall.”

Still, some things can be known, even if the biggest factor - how much the city will get in its education subsidy from the state – won’t become clear for several months. Health insurance costs are on the rise. City Manager Jim Gailey said he anticipates an increase of about 3 percent, while Godin said the school district expects a hike of between 8 and 13 percent in health insurance premiums.

The salary line in the school budget also will go up again, thanks, in part, to the “step-system” of automatic annual raises built into various union contracts. The line item generally goes up by nearly $1 million every year. At the same time, said Godin, the district’s maintenance fund for all eight school buildings is a mere $50,000, an amount Godin called “abysmal” in terms of the work that actually needs to be done

Although the joint meetings are billed as a way for the two bodies that control the school budget to reach common ground early in the process, there was more than the usual amount of tension at the initial session on Dec. 10.

With the school board controlling line items and the city council in charge of the bottom line, there AWK CONSTRUCTION is seeming frustration) every year as the two bodies circle what both can accept as an annual increase in property taxes. However this time out, the quality of education in South Portland also was broached.

Councilors Tom Blake and Melissa Linscott raised the issue of the “F” assigned to Kaler Elementary School by the LePage administration in its new letter-grade system designed to focus parent and taxpayer attention on the effectiveness and benefit-for-dollar of Maine’s public schools.

Blake said he’s taken calls from concerned parents intent on moving their children out of the district. Meanwhile, Linscott, whose two children attend private schools, was even more direct.

“It has become very apparent to me the difference between private and public schools,” she said. “I feel very strongly that our [public school] students deserve more.”

Godin defended Kaler, stating that it was “one grade” (it was actually given twice, although the Department of Education has suspended the program in its third year) and that the school department had an improvement plan in the works even before the F grade came out. That plan has recently been supplemented by a $1.6 million federal improvement grant.

However, it came to the youngest person at the table to cap off the conversation.

Gabby Ferrell, a senior at South Portland High School who sits as one of two student representatives on the school board, bristled at the challenge to the quality of her education.

“I don’t see the walls crumbling before me,” she said. “I don’t see a failing school system when I walk through the doors.”

On the docket

The next joint meeting between South Portland City Council and the board of education, in which the two bodies will continue to lay out parameters for the school department’s 2016 budget, is set for 7 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 14, in council chambers at city hall.

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