SOUTH PORTLAND – In a special joint session Monday, the South Portland City Council accepted cuts made by the school board to the $39.6 million operating budget for public education in the next fiscal year, putting the two groups on the same page for the first time in five meetings.

“I feel really positively that a good-faith effort was made,” said Councilor Rosemarie De Angelis, marking a contrast from the previous meeting, April 21, when she’d asked school directors to “throw me a bone here.” At that meeting, school board members stood by the initial budget proposal made by Superintendent Suzanne Godin, saying they could find no place to cut without harming program quality.

The council sent school directors from that session with a mandate that they make a lighter touch on tax bills, given the impact of nearly $2 million already being set aside for current and future payments on the $41.5 million high school bond, approved by voters in 2010.

At an April 25 workshop, the school board trimmed $136,000 – lowering the expected impact to taxes from a 2.2 percent increase to 1.78 percent.

However, when counting appropriations of $525,000 for next year’s first payment on the $41.5 million high school bond, and $1.45 million to be set aside to “smooth out” future payments – expected to top $3.3 million in 2015 – the total tax hike will run to 4.4 percent. Assuming total citywide valuation holds at $3.36 billion, the result will be an increase of about $83 to anyone owning a single-family home assessed at $195,000 – the median price in South Portland.

It took school directors on April 25 two-and-a-half hours of debate around a square of tables in the Memorial Middle School library to come to an agreement on cuts. Most of the debate swirled whether or not to use $50,000 in undesignated surplus. School Finance Director Rafe Foreland said he does not yet know how much will remain unspent at the end of this school year, but the department has piled up $1.8 million from previous years. It already plans to use $1 million of that to ease the tax impact of next year’s budget.

Directors essentially agreed to make the figure $1,050,000. But they were not united on that front. Tappan Fitzgerald, the board chairman, wanted to take $80,000, fearing the council would balk at any operating budget hike greater than 1.5 percent. Meanwhile, school board member Jeff Selser called any use of surplus a “shell game” that wouldn’t qualify as a real cut in the council’s eyes.

Despite much hand-wringing, councilors did not blink at the use of surplus money.

“The bottom line here is that we’ll have a modest tax increase after a few years when budgets have been very painful on both sides of the ledger,” said Councilor Tom Coward. “I’m satisfied that we’ve squeezed about as much out of this as we can without doing damage.”

Meanwhile, Councilor Tom Blake marveled at the “astounding percentages” seen in neighboring communities, such as Scarborough, where tax bills are expected to climb 6.88 percent.

“Certainly, we’re in line, comparatively,” he said.

According to city Finance Director Greg L’Heureux, the hike in the property tax rate from all school spending, which amounts to 46 cents per $1,000 of property valuation, will be joined by a 9-cent increase triggered by municipal spending.

Also sacrificed from the school budget at the final hour was $21,000 to fund a new communications specialist position. That person would have issued press releases and otherwise acted as a school liaison to local residents and the press. Directors also cut professional development funding in half to $30,000 and held back on $20,000 that would have restored the opportunity for elementary field trips outside of the city, or Portland. It’s hoped that PTA groups will continue to raise funds for those excursions.

Directors also took away $15,000 in stipends for leadership positions at the elementary level. Those bonuses are not in the teaching contract that expires June 30, but would have been added to match similar stipends at the middle and high school levels.

Councilors pointedly declined to involve themselves with the line-item cuts. Instead, the larger concern was for the budgeting process itself, which many said should begin in the fall.

“I’d like to see us get together earlier, instead of coming together like this at the11th hour and getting thrown a bunch of facts and figures, and then trying to figure out what’s best,” said Councilor Alan Livingston.

However, school board member James Gilboy said “it would be pointless” to meet too far in advance of state subsidy numbers, which already often come out after the annual budgeting process is under way.

Still, Mayor Patti Smith promised early meetings next year on basic budgeting philosophies, to ensure that, unlike this year, the school board cannot claim that it received “no guidance.”

“Then,” she said, with a smile, “we’ll throw down like we always do at budget time.”

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