PORTLAND – As we near the end of our fiscal year June 30, the Portland Public Schools projects a surplus of more than $1 million, thanks largely to a spending freeze and lower utility costs. Given the budgetary challenges facing our district, the surplus reflects prudent fiscal management. Yet some people, including Gov. Paul LePage, have called this practice into question.
The Great Recession has strained public funding at all levels of government. In 2010, the Maine Legislature issued a midyear curtailment of state subsidies going to Portland and other school districts. Ever since then, we have lived with uncertainty about whether we would receive all of the state education aid promised to our district.
With 80 percent of our budget spent on labor costs, we have few ways to cut the budget midyear other than laying off employees — a scenario that would be disruptive to our schools and harmful to our students.
Several years ago, the practice was to purchase many needed supplies early in the year, using discretionary supply funds. Fortunately, in response to the 2010 midyear curtailment, we were able to find funding in supply lines and other nonlabor costs to avoid deep and disruptive staff cuts midyear.
Having been stung by the midyear curtailment, we instituted a practice of freezing 40 percent of all general and instructional supplies from the start of the fiscal year until the following spring while we closely track revenue and expenditures.
Requests to purchase supplies or address maintenance requests are approved on a case-by-case basis over the course of the school year. The result is that supplies and discretionary spending are distributed over the entire year on an as-needed basis. That gives us a cushion to help cover any unanticipated costs without layoffs or running up a deficit.
The current fiscal year is no different. We faced three major budgetary challenges that had the potential to seriously disrupt our work in the classroom.
• First, we started the school year with more students than expected.
Unlike much of the state, Portland’s elementary school and special needs enrollment is growing faster than projected. While we welcome these new students, we had to hire additional, nonbudgeted staff to meet the need.
• Second, Gov. LePage ordered a state curtailment of education aid in December that resulted in our district losing $870,089. Fortunately, our decision to freeze supply lines and avoid filling some vacant positions provided funding to help cover this gap. But it meant that staff and students had to make do with less.
• Third, we had unanticipated costs because of our aging facilities.
A fire at Hall Elementary School in September forced us to move the students and staff to a rented facility temporarily. During the winter, West School’s ancient boiler broke and the roof started leaking in many places. In February, we moved the K-12 program housed there to rented space in order to ensure the safety of students and staff.
We can assure the citizens of Portland that no reckless spending spree is taking place as we approach the end of the fiscal year. Nor can we use the surplus to save any positions that we regrettably have had to reduce as part of the cost-savings effort.
There are only two things that we legally can do with a surplus. One option is to return the money to the city’s fund balance. The other option is to pre-pay for items needed next year and delivered by June 30.
Over the last several years, we have used a combination of those options: buying supplies or performing maintenance we know we’ll need in the next school year while also putting some away for an unforeseen problem in the future.
Making investments in textbooks, instructional materials and other things will help improve student outcomes.
Buying much-needed materials benefits students and teachers and also takes some of the pressure off next year’s already tight budget. Having some money saved for an emergency makes a lot of sense.
Superintendent Caulk was brought here a year ago to bring needed changes to Portland schools — to give every child an opportunity to succeed and to create a dynamic, innovative school system worthy of a great city. That’s what we intend to do. That effort begins with the proper management of our financial resources.
Emmanuel “Manny” Caulk has been Portland’s superintendent of schools since last August. Jaimey Caron is the chair of the Portland Board of Public Education and has been an at-large member since 2007.