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Jobs on the line in South Portland's school budget

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Posted: Wednesday, March 13, 2013 8:56 am | Updated: 9:18 am, Wed Mar 13, 2013.

SOUTH PORTLAND – At Monday’s meeting of the South Portland Board of Education, Superintendent Suzanne Godin presented a $43.2 million budget for the 2013-2014 school year that promises to add 36 cents per $1,000 of valuation to the property tax rate, an increase of 3.37 percent.

However, half of that is the first $2.2 million payment on the high school reconstruction project, for which voters approved borrowing $41.5 million in November 2010.

But even with the remaining hike in new spending – including $991,000 in salary increases – as many as seven jobs are on the line under Godin’s budget. Meanwhile, if the City Council gets its way and holds the increase to just 6 cents on the tax rate, another six jobs could be cut, as well as the high school hockey program.

The actual $41 million operating budget includes a $1.8 million increase in the state subsidy, or general purpose aid to education for South Portland, as well as a $2.3 million bump in the portion to be raised from local taxpayers. That’s good for an additional 18 cents on the tax rate, resulting in a 1.79 percent increase in local property tax bills.

Combined with the high school debt payment, public education in South Portland would cost $10.78 per $1,000 of assessed valuation next year under Godin’s proposed budget. In other words, the median home in the city, assessed at $195,000, would owe $2,102 – an increase of $70.20 from this year’s tax bill.

However, Godin’s proposed 1.79 percent hike in local taxes is down from the 2.5 percent she said was the bottom line in a “needs-based budget” on Feb. 27, during a joint workshop between the school board and the City Council.

At that session, the council set a goal of raising tax bills no more than 2 percent, or 34 cents on the tax rate – good for about $405,000 in new spending, according to city Finance Director Greg L’Heureux. However, with 18 cents of the 34-cent increase dedicated to the high school bond, and another 4 cents eaten by a 6.75 percent increase in the city’s tax bill to Cumberland County, that leaves just 12 cents left over to split between municipal services and education.

At the joint workshop, Mayor Tom Blake said any new spending should be split on the same 65/35 ratio school and municipal budgets generally account for in total South Portland spending. However, Councilor Jerry Jalbert said that because the school department is getting an extra $1.8 million from the state – which nets out to a $1.2 million increase when factoring in $595,000 in new retirement costs shifted from the state to the local level, and a projected $120,000 loss in MaineCare revenue – it should split the proposed tax increase equally with the city.

That suggestion, to add no more than 6 cents to the local tax rate, was addressed by Godin in her budget presentation. If the school board chooses to adhere to the council goal, Godin suggested doing away with the high school hockey program, saving $34,000, as well as cutting a high school lab teacher (saving $43,000), a half-time guidance counselor ($31,000), a language arts teacher for academically gifted students ($76,000), a half-time guidance clerk ($27,000), a middle school guidance clerk ($53,000) and a middle school technology integrator ($65,000), for a total savings of $329,000.

But even at the 1.79 percent tax increase suggested by Godin, good for 18 cents on the tax rate, there are jobs on the line.

Under Godin’s budget proposal, an open technology support specialist job would remain unfilled, saving $53,000, while a retiring kindergarten teacher at Small Elementary would not be replaced, saving $61,000. Also up for the ax are a 10-hour-per-week administrative support job at Small Elementary (saving $36,000), a half-time English teacher at the high school ($31,000) and a high school learning lab technician ($28,000). Other savings would come from collapsing the special education Life Skills program to a single classroom (saving $52,000) and cutting assistive technology services ($17,000).

Still, Godin’s budget proposal does include two new positions. In addition to adding a 30-hour-per-week bus driver, at $20,000, Godin will ask the school board for $84,000 to hire a “community communications” specialist. In addition to acting as a spokesman and press secretary for the superintendent, the new communications staffer would be responsible for grant writing.

The school board will conduct three workshop sessions on the 2013-2104 budget, on Thursday, March 21, Monday, March 26 and Wednesday, March 28. The first and last meetings will be at Memorial Middle School while the March 26 session will be held at Mahoney Middle School. All three meetings will start at 6:30 p.m.

The school board is slated to vote on the budget at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, April 1, at Mahoney Middle School. Godin will then present the approved budget to the City Council for its consideration at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 3, in council chambers at city hall.

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