February 27, 2013

'Very difficult decisions': Portland schools mull cuts

School officials say they need to find $3.8 million in savings to keep the tax rate increase at about 3.2 percent.

By Noel K. Gallagher ngallagher@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – Parents, a high school student, a former school board member and a librarian were among the half-dozen people Tuesday night who urged the superintendent and members of the school board's Finance Committee to carefully consider what to trim as they settle on a proposed budget for the 2013-14 school year.

First-year literacy teacher and librarian Nicole Myers got up to say something she acknowledged "may not be too popular" with her fellow teachers.

"I'd rather be bitten than devoured. I'd rather take a pay cut or pay more in insurance than go home at the end of this year without a job," said Myers, who works at Lincoln Middle School and has a daughter in school there.

School officials say they are looking at cost increases of $6.6 million that will have to be trimmed by as much as $3.8 million to keep the tax rate increase at about 3.2 percent.

The meeting Tuesday was a first in that it sought public input on spending before the superintendent formally presents a proposed budget.

Naomi Mermin, a parent, noted that the school board has made many cuts to school spending over the years.

"The reality is there isn't anything good left to cut," said Mermin, who has two children in Portland public schools. "We need to think radically about what we do here."

One area might be in health care premium costs, Mermin said, explaining that her own family lowered its costs by increasing the deductible in exchange for lower premiums.

Working with the union would be key, too, she said: "There's no way to come up with this enormous cut without looking at salaries."

Several years ago, in the midst of another financial crisis, the union agreed to a contract that put off salary increases to the 2013-14 budget year. So the school budget is scheduled to increase by $1.7 million for those catch-up raises alone, Superintendent Manny Caulk said.

Those raises account for more than a quarter of the projected cost increases. The next biggest increase is for health care premiums, which are projected to go up 13 percent, or $875,084.

Caulk said school officials are in ongoing discussions with the union about the budget.

"All of us can see by the numbers that we're going to have to make some very difficult decisions," said committee Chairman Justin Costa.

Caulk, who will present his proposal to the school board March 12, said he would use "a measured approach" in making cuts.

"Layoffs are likely," he said. "This is not something we want to do, let's be clear about that. It's what the state is trying to impose on us."

 

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

ngallagher@pressherald.com

 

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