May 6, 2013

Portland seeks deal to save school jobs

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - Teachers are in line to receive a 5 percent salary increase next year, but city and school officials hope the teachers union will reopen its contract in an effort to save jobs.

Today's poll: Portland school budget

Should the Portland teachers union make some contract concessions in order to avoid staff cuts?

Yes

No

View Results

The Portland Public Schools budget eliminates nearly 50 full-time, locally funded positions, while still calling for a 3 percent increase in the schools' portion of the property tax rate.

Such a steep increase in the tax rate, while cutting staff, is generating anxiety on the City Council, which sets the bottom line for school spending. The council will hold a public hearing and vote Monday, which would send the $96.4 million school budget to referendum on May 14.

"I believe there are alternatives," said City Councilor John Anton, chairman of the Finance Committee. "I think management and labor need to come up with a better outcome."

The Finance Committee voted 3-1 Thursday on a budget proposal that ignores $1.3 million in potential cost shifts to the city under Gov. Paul LePage's state budget plan. The school budget also minimizes the potential impact of Baxter Academy for Technology and Science, the charter school that is scheduled to open in Portland this fall. If the school budget strategy is wrong, the district could be forced to make deeper cuts later on, or ask the voters for more money.

The budget would increase the schools' share of the property tax rate from $9.57 to $9.86, adding about $60 a year to the tax bill of a home with an assessed value of $200,000. The city budget, which includes county taxes, is also factored into the property tax rate and is still being deliberated.

Anton cast the sole dissenting vote on the Finance Committee Thursday.

City Councilor David Marshall supported the budget at the Finance Committee level and said Friday he will likely support it on Monday. But he, too, would like teachers and school administrators to find other savings to stave off position cuts that could affect the classroom -- cuts that could be exacerbated if some of the state cost shifts occur.

"It's really important for people, when they talk about keeping cuts out of the classroom, to look at the low-hanging fruit that is not in the classroom," Marshall said. He was referring to provisions that put two teachers union leaders mostly on the city payroll, even though they don't teach.

As part of the current contract, Portland Education Association President Kathleen Casasa and chief negotiator Suzette Olafsen are released from their teaching duties but have 80 percent of their salaries paid for by the district, while the remaining 20 percent is paid by union dues. In 2012, that arrangement cost taxpayers nearly $160,000.

That includes $82,880 for Casasa and $75,350 for Olafsen, who also oversees the district's professional development program to ensure that it conforms with the contract, so teachers can receive raises for their work.

TEACHERS IN LINE FOR RAISES

The school district is talking with three of its four unions to come up with ways to save money through contract changes, rather than position cuts, according to school board Chairman Jaimey Caron.

Much of that effort has been focused on the Portland Education Association, whose more than 600 members are in line for $1.7 million in raises next year.

"By far the biggest opportunity is the money we spend on the teaching staff," Caron said. "They're the largest group and they have relatively high salaries compared to others."

The PEA is currently working under a contract that has been approved by the school board, so it is under no obligation to make concessions, Caron said.

(Continued on page 2)

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Today's poll: Portland school budget

Should the Portland teachers union make some contract concessions in order to avoid staff cuts?

Yes

No

View Results