2015-05-01 / Front Page

School budget wheels turn

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — In what was billed Monday as her last appearance before a joint session of the South Portland City Council and the Board of Education before she retires June 30, school Superintendent Suzanne Godin had some good news.

In her initial $46 million budget proposal for the 2015-2016 school year, Godin had included an 8 percent increase in health insurance costs for the school department. However, the trust that manages the school’s insurance has recently “managed to bring those costs down significantly,” she said, saving $250,000.

However, rather than lop that sum off the proposed budget, the plan is to spend it on items that did not make the first cut. Although the school board has yet to vote on how to apply the savings — it first got word of the unexpected windfall at a workshop meeting held immediately prior to Monday’s joint session with the city council, Godin said — the expectation is that a new bus will top the wish list.

South Portland has 22 school buses — 21 not counting No. 10, recently relegated to “parts” status. Of the buses still in service, the average is 9.2 years old, with 108,304 miles on the odometer. With the entire fleet logging 255,496 miles per year — greater than the distance from the earth to the moon, by about 16,600 miles — the school board would like to knock the median bus age down to about 6 years old. When in place, that policy will result in a 12-year replacement cycle, with two new bus purchases per year. However, to get on that schedule, the school department would need to replace three buses per year for the next four years.

Next year’s budget had room for one bus. So, Godin said, the plan is to use about $90,000 of the $250,000 savings to buy a new bus.

That’s full retail because, despite the miles South Portland school buses travel, Maine is a rural state, and most other school departments run the roads to an even greater extent.

“The reality is, as bad as we feel our buses are, they are nothing compared to other parts of the state,” Godin said.

The state policy on subsidizing school bus purchases prioritizes ones with 150,000 miles, or 10 years old.

That’s partly why South Portland tends not to gripe too much about increasing mandates to transport homeless children and students given out-of-district placement, often sending as few as one or two kids on a bus that can hold 77.

“The reason we’re doing that is to put that mileage on, so we can get it closer the that 150,000 miles,” Godin said. “That’s why you see that bus with one or two students on it going down (Interstate) 295. It’s very purposeful.”

But not everyone at the table saw the wisdom of chasing state money that way, particularly Councilor Claude Morgan, who said, given its many needs, he had no issue with the school board spending the $250,000, rather than returning it to the taxpayers.

“It bothers me that there is some formula that we must contort and squeeze ourselves into through such absurd measures, such as carting one, or two, or three kids to an event so we can rack on the miles. It’s obscene.”

Godin said the district is required to transport certain students; the actual cost to do so on one of its smaller buses is insignificant compared to the potential benefits of running up miles on its larger cousin.

“Financially, there is pennies difference,” she said. “It’s all in the perception (of waste).”

“My perception is not watching dollars sizzle in front of us,” said Morgan, who campaigned last fall on an environmental platform. “It’s the carbon footprint.

“We create our own Rube Goldberg formulas in order to fit the state formula,” Morgan said. “But, this is how the sausage is made.”

In Councilor Tom Blake’s view, it might be time to reinvent the sausage-making process.

“It’s not about miles, it’s about wear and tear,” he said, suggesting state policy gives rural districts an unfair advantage over their urban counterparts.

“There’s no comparison in use,” Blake said. “It would behoove all of us to work with our legislators to get Augusta to fix that broken wheel.”

Still, Blake, who claimed to have never needed a school bus back in his childhood days of walking uphill, both ways, said maybe a bit more of the old grit is in order.

“I see children today taking buses and I believe they should be walking,” he said. “Maybe you need to evaluate the whole busing policy. Maybe we really only need 20 buses, or 18.”

But school board member Karen Callaghan said convincing parents of that would be the real uphill battle.

“Can we change the entire community’s outlook?” she asked, rhetorically.

“It’s baby steps,” said school board Chairman Richard Matthews, “but at least it’s steps in the right direction.”

Even so, when it comes to transportation, South Portland has a bigger concern than buses.

“What I’ve seen in my 11 years in South Portland, our bigger problem, to be honest, is getting the bodies to drive the buses.”

According to Godin, $100,000 of the insurance savings will most likely be used to pay for the school department’s annual lease on iPads under the Maine Learning Technology Initiative program. That, she said, would prevent the school board from having to take the money from an existing technology reserve, helping to preserve those funds for future use.

Although much remains uncertain, given continued wrangling at the statehouse on Maine’s biennial budget, which could change South Portland’s annual school subsidy, current numbers show a 3.5 percent increase. That’s in line with the direction given to school board members by the city council, or an impact to tax bills of between 2 and 4 percent.

Still, Godin said her last budget leaves the district with “four areas of concern.” In addition to the bus fleet, those areas include declining reserve funds, a middle school consolidation effort, and ongoing maintenance costs.

The district’s undesignated reserve fund is “becoming scarily short,” Godin said.

That fund held more than $4 million in fiscal year 2011, but now stands at $1.7 million. With $500,000 scheduled to be taken from that account to reduce the tax burden in the coming $46 million budget, the district could be hobbled in its ability to respond to unforeseen events.

“We are at the point where in the next couple of years we could be in a detrimental position,” Godin said.

On the middle school front, Godin said a committee to decide the fate of South Portland’s two middle schools will be formed in May. That group is expected to need at least 18 months to come up with a recommendation. Although nothing has been decided, city and school officials have often kicked around the idea of housing all students in grades six through eight in one middle school, to be built where Memorial Middle School stands now, and converting Mahoney Middle School into a new city hall. But that, too, could be an uphill fight, according to Godin.

“A consolidated middle school is going to save you up to a million dollars a year. Whether this community has the stomach for that is another thing,” she said, noting that residents have tended to voice favoritism for two middle schools, as well as neighborhood elementary schools

Finally, Godin outlined concerns with the school department’s five-year maintenance plan for its eight buildings. That presentation stood out for Councilor Melissa Linscott.

“I look at that in conjunction with our reserves and in my mind it’s concerning,” she said. “I see things projected out over the years, but there’s no dollar figure connected to anything. That seems a big area of weakness for our school system.”

However, Godin said the first step is to build up a maintenance reserve of at least $500,000.

“The problem is that without the money there can’t be a long-term plan,” she said.

Still, Linscott pressed for an outline of capital improvement projects more in line with how the city handles its building projects. However, Godin left off by saying that will have to be a discussion for another day.

“Maybe the new superintendent will help to do that better,” she said.

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