2015-05-22 / Front Page

School budget goes to voters

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Twice in as many sentences when addressing the South Portland City Council Monday night, school board Chairman Richard Matthews referred to his group’s $46.1 million spending plan for the coming year as “a good and responsible budget.”

City Councilor Melissa Linscott did not dispute that assessment. Her problem, she said, was that she couldn’t make sense of the numbers presented.

“We can go over it, but all of these numbers have been vetted with the city council,” said Superintendent Suzanne Godin.

“We have not seen all of these numbers broken out in exactly this format until we sat down to vote on it tonight,” she said. “I’m having trouble getting all of the numbers to add up.”

“They don’t, if you try to add them all up,” Godin said.

“Exactly,” Linscott replied. “If it’s unclear to me, I’m thinking of the public when they go to vote on it.”

Godin surmised Linscott’s confusion may have stemmed from warrant articles that address local funds that need to be raised because the school budget exceeds the amount of money the Maine Department of Education claims is appropriate in its essential programs and services funding model, a calculation that helps to set state subsidies based on a study of Maine’s most efficient school systems.

“That adds extra numbers in there you don’t even need to think about,” Godin said.

The total school operating budget of $46.09 million is up 2.9 percent. Of that, $39.7 million will need to be raised in local taxes. That will drive the portion of property tax bills dedicated to public education in South Portland to $11.60 per $100,000 of valuation. That’s up 39.2 cents, or 3.5 percent.

Of the 11 line items voters will see when they head to the polls for the annual school budget validation vote June 9, the biggest changes are to transportation (up 10.1 percent to $1.86 million), school administration (up 5.7 percent to $2.39 million) and facilities maintenance (up 5.1 percent to $4.14 million). The largest part of the budget, staff salaries and benefits (called “regular instruction” in the budget) is up 2 percent to $17.71 million.

“Trying to make sense of these numbers as a non-school person is almost impossible,” said Mayor Linda Cohen. “That is probably the No. 1 reason I am opposed to the referendum process. If we’re having a hard job understanding it, imagine the general public, who is not exposed to these numbers all the time.”

Godin went over the budget and assured the council that revenues did match expenditures.

“I guess I’ll have to take your word for it,” Linscott said. “If everybody else is happy with that I’m fine to move on.”

Councilor Tom Blake said he is “always comforted” by the annual audit, which he said “comes back every year with great reports.”

His only question was the $20,000 on top of the regular budget spent on adult education.

“Can we do more? In your opinion, are we underfunded in this area?” he asked.

“We have not turned away anybody in our adult ed program,” said Godin, who assured Blake that adult ed funding will increase “gradually.”

“It doesn’t have to be a huge increase,” she said. “But that is something we will look at in the next several years.”

“I can remember when South Portland didn’t have an adult education program at all, and I thought that was a travesty,” Cohen said.

Meanwhile, Councilor Patti Smith urged the public to support the school budget on June 9, saying the $5.1 million the local school department spends above what the state predicts it needs is part of what makes South Portland special.

“People choose to live in South Portland because we have a lot of wonderful things,” she said, citing the number of elementary and middle schools the city maintains, despite a DOE preference for schools of no less than 300 students.

“Voting in favor of this (budget) says what kind of city we want to live in. Yes, we are going above what the state says we should have, but hopefully we as residents know what we want out of our educational system. I feel like this serves our community well in so many way.”

“Sometimes you need to go above and

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