April 24, 2013

Portland schools' 55 staff cuts bemoaned

The school board OKs spending that seeks a tax hike while hoping for relief from the Legislature.

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

PORTLAND — School board members voted unanimously Tuesday to endorse a school budget that would cut 55 staff positions in the next year, even as each voiced regret at the financial circumstances.

"This is a very, very challenging budget. This is a very, very challenging vote ... I feel like I'm voting with the pit of my stomach," said board member Jenna Vendil, echoing other members' somber assessment of the budget of almost $98 million.

Several board members said they still hope to make changes to the budget, which will go to the City Council for approval before going to Portland voters on May 14.

Superintendent Manny Caulk said he plans a series of public meetings over the next two months to discuss the budget further.

"(This vote) does not really set solidly in stone that these are the necessary choices," Caulk said.

Possible changes include more state revenue than expected because of legislative action and the discovery of new cost savings.

The budget for the year starting July 1, totaling $97,969,952, would require the school portion of Portland's property tax rate of $18.82 per $1,000 valuation to increase 3.7 percent, from $9.57 to $9.92.

The increase would add $70 to the annual property tax bill for a home valued at $200,000. Portland's tax rate also depends on the size of municipal and county budgets.

The budget approved Tuesday night is a 4 percent increase over the $94.2 million approved by voters last year.

Despite the increase, school officials say they face cost increases of $8 million, including $1.4 million from a LePage administration proposal in the state budget to shift teachers' retirement costs from the state to school districts.

The other major increase is $1.7 million in catch-up salary increases. That's because several years ago, during a financial crisis, the teachers union and the school district agreed to a contract that put off salary increases to the 2013-14 budget year.

More than 100 people attended Tuesday's meeting, and more than a dozen teachers spoke out against staffing cuts.

"I am heartsick at what my job will look like and feel like without a reading teacher or an assistant principal in the building," said Beverly Lawrence, a kindergarten teacher who has worked at Longfellow Elementary School for 17 years. "I can't imagine not having those resources available."

Teachers union President Kathleen Casasa also criticized the budget, saying district officials had not considered the Portland Education Association's suggestions for different cost savings -- such as offering a retirement incentive.

She sharply criticized district officials for repeatedly implying that the teachers are to blame for financial problems.

District officials have repeatedly noted that nonunion employees have agreed to take five furlough days but the teachers union has not agreed to any concessions.

"You should refuse to allow this and these divisive tactics now before they do any permanent damage," Casasa told the board.

The latest budget proposal lowered the projected cost of a new charter school by about $300,000, based on updated enrollment figures from the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science.

Still in question is whether the district will get additional state funding after the budget is finalized, likely in June.

On Monday, the Legislature's Education Committee voted 9-4 against the LePage administration's budget proposal to make school districts pay half the cost of teachers' retirement plans, which now are covered fully by the state.

The state and school districts would effectively split the cost of the plans over the two years starting July 1, costing districts about $14 million.

The legislative committee also voted to give schools statewide an additional $22 million.

"If any of this gets finalized, this is good news for Portland," Casasa said of the legislative action.

The committee's recommendation will be considered by the Legislature's budget writing committee.

The school board considered adding its share of that money back into Portland's budget, but decided not to since it remained unclear what would happen in Augusta.

Casasa said the unions are working aggressively in Augusta to restore education funding. "You must stop depicting us as your enemy. We're your best ally," she said.

Also Tuesday, the board voted 7-2 in favor of adopting a school calendar that is the same as the current calendar, putting off proposed changes for at least another year.

In late March, the School Calendar Steering Committee, which consisted of parents and staff members, issued a report that, among other things, recommended setting the first day of school on the Tuesday after Labor Day, with professional development days for teachers happening in the previous week.

Casasa spoke out against that change Tuesday night, saying calendar changes should be taken up in contract negotiations.

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

ngallagher@pressherald.com

 

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