July 23, 2013

Portland seeks quick vote on spending extra state funds

Restoring as many as eight 'high-value' positions may be one option considered in a Portland referendum.

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

PORTLAND – School officials are recommending a quickly scheduled public referendum to approve how additional state funds are spent in the upcoming school year. One possibility: restoring assistant principal positions at Hall, Longfellow and Ocean Avenue schools and several other staff jobs that had been cut.

click image to enlarge

Portland Superintdnet 'Manny' Caulk recommends spending $90,000 of extra funds to reinstate assistant principal hours at Hall, Longfellow and Ocean Avenue schools. Above, a file photo of Hall Elementary.

Gordon Chibroski / 2009 Staff File Photo

The Portland school board will vote Tuesday night on whether to recommend that the City Council approve a referendum to be held in August.

The final state budget included an unexpected $29 million for schools, including about $1.9 million for Portland. But the law says districts cannot spend that money unless residents vote on a new school budget. A bill allowing one-time use of the extra money without a referendum failed in the state Legislature.

There's also the question of how to spend the windfall. Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk has proposed restoring staff cuts. But it could also be used, hypothetically, to lower the property tax impact or be directed to the city's unassigned general-fund balance.

"We want to reduce cuts (and) we can do this in a tax-neutral way," school board member Justin Costa said Monday.

Not all of the $1.9 million is extra money for spending. The $96.4 million school budget approved by voters in May didn't include $1.3 million to cover the shifting of some teacher retirement contributions from the state to local school districts. There are also some additional charter school costs, officials said.

All that leaves the district with about $523,000 to "fund eight high-value positions," according to a memo to the board from Caulk and Chief Financial Officer Michael Wilson.

Under the existing budget, 49 full-time positions were cut, including 32.6 teaching positions. Several board members said when they approved the budget that they hoped they would be able to restore some of the positions.

Caulk recommends spending $90,000 to reinstate assistant principal hours at Hall, Longfellow and Ocean Avenue schools; $120,000 to create one full-time literacy specialist at each middle school; $120,000 to restore teaching positions for technology at Deering High School, world language at Casco Bay High School and visual arts at Portland High School; and $120,000 for four education technicians.

Portland officials said there is a particularly urgent need to get voter approval as fast as possible because the money would be used for decisions on staffing that would need to be in place before the school year begins. In addition, officials want a final budget in place to be able to track expenses against final budget figures.

The City Council must approve the referendum language. The memo from Caulk and Wilson outlines a plan in which the council holds a double session on Aug. 5 so it can have both a "first reading" in one session and a "second reading" in the second, speeding up the process.

Otherwise, it could push the referendum into October, which "really would not be helpful to the school," the memo states.

Mayor Michael Brennan had estimated it could cost up to $15,000 to hold a referendum.

 

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

ngallagher@pressherald.com

 

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