PORTLAND – Charlie Thompson stepped to the microphone and spoke with a clear and confident voice in defense of something he loves: playing his trumpet in the Lyseth Elementary School band.

“So, please don’t cut it,” Charlie urged the School Committee during a public hearing Monday night on Portland’s school budget for 2010-11.

“A lot of kids just love music,” the fifth-grader said. “I want my little brother to have band.”

About 150 people attended the hearing in the gym at Hall Elementary School. It was the first public hearing on the $89.3 million budget proposed for the coming school year.

As expected, many spoke in support of various programs and the 80 positions targeted for cuts, including special education, sports, building maintenance, sex education and music.

Ari Solotoff, executive director of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, was among more than a dozen people who spoke in support of the elementary band and districtwide stringed instrument program.

Solotoff said fourth and fifth grade is a critical period to introduce music to children. He offered to work with other music professionals to help preserve an elementary music program in the district.

“Seventy-one percent of our audience played an instrument or sang in a choir in school,” Solotoff said. “So we care very much. They will be our audience of tomorrow.”

The budget proposed by Superintendent Jim Morse would eliminate the positions of 44 teachers, 22 educational technicians, six secretaries, five food service workers, two custodial or maintenance staff members and one administrator.

Forty-two positions will be vacant because eligible employees have accepted a retirement incentive, saving the district about $1.5 million in salaries. Thirty-eight positions would require layoffs, saving more than $3 million in salaries and benefits.

Of the 44 teaching positions targeted for elimination, four are at elementary schools, seven are at middle schools, 12 are at high schools, 15 are special education, five are districtwide and one is adult education.

Moira Leighton, an educational technician whose son is a special education student at Lyman Moore Middle School, said she feels the budget proposal attacks special education.

“If we do not provide the resources for these children as students, we will be paying for them as adults,” Leighton said.

Pam Farrar, a 20-year ed tech at Lyseth Elementary, spoke about the prospect of losing her job because she lacks a bachelor’s degree. Under union contract rules, she could be bumped by an ed tech who has a degree but far less experience.

“Please don’t overlook people like me,” Farrar said, her voice shaking with emotion.

Morse’s budget proposal does have some wiggle room. While it reflects a $6 million reduction in state and federal funding in the coming year, Gov. John Baldacci gave Portland an additional $1.35 million last week when he allocated an additional $20 million for education aid statewide.

The School Committee will decide in the coming weeks how to use the additional $1.35 million. It could restore programs or positions targeted for reduction. It also could offset an estimated 22-cent increase in the property tax rate, which would add $44 to the tax bill on a $200,000 home.

Morse’s $89.3 million proposal is $2 million less than the budget approved last spring for the current school year. However, it’s about $700,000 higher than current spending, because a mid-year reduction lowered the 2009-10 budget by $2.7 million.

Under Morse’s proposal, the amount to be raised by property taxes is up 2.5 percent, from $66.7 million for the budget passed last spring to $68.3 million in the coming school year.

Monday’s forum was recorded and will air on local cable television Channel 3 at noon and 10 p.m. Friday through Sunday.

The School Committee will hold a budget workshop at 7:30 p.m. March 17 at Portland Arts and Technology High School, and will vote on the budget March 31.

After City Council action, voters will be asked to consider the school budget in a referendum May 11.

 

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: [email protected]