A newly formed group of South Portland parents is urging city residents on June 9 to adopt the 2009-10 school budget and pass a $5.8 million bond for critical repairs at three schools.

The Partnership for South Portland Schools – composed of about two dozen families – is sending out e-mails, writing letters to the editor and meeting with neighbors to encourage voters to pass the $39 million school budget and school maintenance bond.

Peter Stocks of the grassroots group said parents are most concerned about assuring passage of the 20-year bond, which would upgrade wiring, fix ventilation, install security and make other basic repairs at South Portland High School and the two middle schools: Mahoney and Memorial.

The $39 million school budget has a zero percent increase from this year’s school budget and is not expected to be turned down by voters.

But the parents’ group also is reminding supporters that last year’s school budget was adopted by a slim margin of 35 votes.

“35 votes! That was all that saved us last year from having to spend the money to go back to the polls, to vote on another budget that would have slashed spending on our schools,” wrote parent-member Ross Little, in a mass e-mail to families.

Little noted that 1,400 residents turned out in 2008 to vote on the school budget. He and other parent-members said that it is key to organize supporters, since a small number of voters may determine the outcome this year.

Making improvements to the city’s schools has been a sore issue for voters since they rejected a 2008 proposal by South Portland school officials to fund a $56 million renovation and expansion of the city’s only high school.

The proposed $5.8 million maintenance bond already has drawn some detractors, including Albert DiMillo, a retired certified public accountant who regularly attends televised City Council and School Board meetings to criticize school funding.

Stocks, the father of two young children, said he sees the need for parents to step in and “be more proactive” in supporting public education and helping pass the maintenance bond.

“The bond addresses basic health and safety issues – things that need to be done now,” said Stocks, an attorney who previously took an active role when the School Department redistricted the five elementary schools to balance student populations.

He noted that the bond will cover an overhead sprinkler system for fire protection at Memorial Middle School and a security system at the high school campus, where there are numerous unsecured entrances and exits.

Little, an attorney and parent of an elementary-school-age child, said he is worried that a few outspoken critics are circulating misleading information about school funding.

Specifically, Little noted that a few members of the public stated in meetings that the South Portland School Department has adequate money in reserves to fund building improvements.

But Little argued that money in reserves already is being tapped to offset budget gaps created by a sharp reduction in state funding to Maine schools.

In November 2008, the South Portland School Department had to compensate for a loss of $875,000 in state revenue as Maine leaders dealt with their own budget shortfall for this fiscal year.

School officials plan to continue to use reserve money to offset projected budget gaps over the next three years, as the state economy struggles through a recession.

DiMillo has led the charge against passage of the school bond. He has argued that the School Department has enough money saved to finance repairs.

“The School Board over-budgeted by an average of $1.6 million every year from 2005-2008 and accumulated over $4.4 million in surplus as of June 30, 2008,” he said recently. “The more I researched the more I concluded that there are major problems with how the School Board prepares its budgets.”

He also has criticized the need for an electronic security system as overblown, and believes that some of the upgrades will not last the lifetime of the 20-year bond.

The Partnership for South Portland Schools contends that “all of the changes that are put in place by the bond issue will be permanent, not to be undone,” according to Little.

DiMillo, who brings charts and printouts to meetings, has gotten the attention of some residents. Resident Gary Crosby said DiMillo’s arguments convinced him to vote against the school bond.

“I hope that maintenance bond goes down in flames,” Crosby said. “Albert DiMillo is right in many ways. The money is there but it has been mishandled.”

Crosby said he would rather see “a more realistic repair and upgrade that is not a Band-Aid approach.”

Crosby, like DiMillo, has been vocal in his opposition to recent funding proposals by the School Board. In 2008, he hand-painted lawn signs urging voters to defeat the $56 million renovation proposal for the high school.

He planted them in median strips and other high-visibility locations in the final weeks before the vote.

Both Crosby and DiMillo have separately declared they are running for the City Council in 2009, though each man says criticisms of school funding are not a campaign strategy to garner votes in the November election.

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