The Portland School Committee has endorsed a budget for next year that cuts positions, redirects resources and spares the most valued extra-curricular activities for at least another year. As written, it would also call for an 11-cent increase in the property tax rate, which translates into a $22 increase for a $200,000 home, raising about $800,000 for the schools.

So far, the budget process has been exemplary. Superintendent Jim Morse and the School Committee engaged the public with meetings to set priorities even before the budget was drafted. The resulting plan not only fills the $4 million gap that results from a loss of state and federal funding, but puts the district on a track to continuously improve.

But before the budget goes into effect it first needs approval from the City Council and, eventually, support from the residents of Portland, who would have to approve it in a referendum. And before a tax increase is passed on to residents during these tough economic times, city and school officials should answer some questions.

The first involves Morse’s administrative reorganization plan. It makes sense for the superintendent to centralize authority within his office and end the site-based management philosophy that has led to inconsistency between school buildings and a lack of accountability at the top. This plan was developed outside the budget process, was designed to be revenue-neutral and creates as many new positions as it eliminates. The question is why the reorganization was not also seen as an opportunity to save money.

At a time when staff who are directly involved with educating students are being cut, there could have been significant savings achieved by eliminating one or two high-salary administrators. If there are good reasons for leaving the central office out of the budget cuts, the public should hear them soon.

Another area that requires more public explanation is the effort to combine city and school services as a way to save money. Since both the city and the school department will soon have empty human resource director positions, this seems like a good time to explore combining the departments. There are people who like the system the way it is and are reluctant to change. But comfort with old practices should not outweigh core educational functions — like teaching a kindergartner the alphabet — or softening the blow of a tax hike.

These are two areas that could save money without directly affecting education. These kinds of savings should be fully explored before this budget comes up for a vote.


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