South Portland School Board members paraphrased James Carville’s well-worn political campaign slogan to explain why South Portland voters nearly defeated the fiscal 2008-09 school budget: It’s the economy.

In the weeks since South Portland residents approved the $40 million budget by just 36 votes, board members have offered a variety of reasons about why the decision was so close.

The budget referendum won on a vote of 753-717, with 9 percent of registered voters casting ballots.

The turnout, while small, actually was a few hundred more than City Clerk Susan Mooney projected for the off-season budget referendum. Presidential elections typically draw the highest number of voters.

Some board members noted that the school budget vote was hardly representative because of the low turnout. They say that only the highly motivated voters for or against the budget went to the polling place in large numbers.

“The timing of the polling was off-schedule from when people generally go to the polls to vote. It was not foremost on their minds,” said School Board member Stacy Gato.

School Board member James Gilboy said the vote seem to be split along the lines of ardent school supporters and people worried about the economy.

“South Portland has a good number of older community members who don’t have kids in the schools and young families just starting out,” Gilboy said. “For me, I have four kids who will fully utilize the services of the schools.”

Other board members believe that many residents may have cast a negative vote because they were unhappy about the recent citywide redistricting, which shuffled some elementary students to different schools to balance enrollments.

“When we had the budget hearings, people wanted to come forward to talk about redistricting and that dominated the public comments,” School Board member Sara Goldberg said. “There was not that much time left over to talk about the budget. By then, everyone had gone home.”

But all the board members seemed to agree that the overriding factor in the slim approval seems to be the difficult economy.

“Everyone is paying more for gas and food and health insurance, and many do not want to see their taxes go up,” Goldberg added.

“People are just really concerned about what is happening with the economy,” said School Board member Ralph Baxter.

Gato noted that South Portland residents have supported the idea of maintaining several schools, which increases operation costs – and the bottom line.

South Portland, which is 12 square miles, has five neighborhood elementary schools, some only a mile apart. The number is higher than the state Education Department recommends for a city the size of South Portland.

Gato also believes that some voters may not have understood fully the budgeting or voting process. This was the first year that Maine municipalities were required, under the school consolidation law, to send school budgets to referendum.

Budgets that failed to pass were required to be revised and voted on again until adopted.

On May 13, South Portland voters approved the $39.9 million spending plan for the 2008-2009 school year. The amount represents the total cost of funding public education in South Portland for kindergarten through Grade 12.

The new budget is up less than $1 million from the current spending plan. It calls for cutting up to nine positions, with most jobs eliminated through retirement or attrition. The need for cuts largely resulted from a $683,000 reduction in state funding.

The school budget is just one part of an overall $83 million spending package to run municipal and school services for the new fiscal year, which starts July 1. It is expected to increase local property tax bills by 4 percent.

While voters for the first time were asked to approve the schools portion of the budget, it is up to the City Council to pass the municipal budget.

The Council is expected to vote on the budget June 2.

Homeowners could pay $14.25 per $1,000 in valuation, up from $13.69 per $1,000. Rising costs for fuel and personnel account for some of the municipal budget increase.

With the school budget adopted, board members are contemplating how voters may respond to a second attempt to pass a bond for rebuilding the high school.

The Secondary Schools Facilities Committee is meeting to come up with a less costly alternative to the $56 million school rebuilding project that voters rejected in 2007. Baxter said he expects that voters will be asked in November 2009 to approve a bond for making major repairs at the city’s only high school.

“We already had gotten the message money was an issue” when voters rejected the $56 million renovation project in 2007, Baxter said. “The fact that money seemed to be a concern in the school budget vote was not new.”

He said voter concerns have not deterred the Secondary Schools Facilities Committee from hewing to its task to find a more affordable way to fix significant health and safety problems at the city’s only high school.

“We would be remiss not to continue to investigate the best way to improve the high school and to move forward and be as green as possible, so we can save money in the long run through better efficiencies,” Gato said.

“The high school has to be fixed,” Goldberg added. “We have said that if we put another referendum out to voters, we don’t want to wait too long. Most people are expecting it.”

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