SOUTH PORTLAND — City councilors and School Board members this week decided Nov. 20 will be a critical date in setting the course for the fiscal year 2015 school budget, even though information at that time will at best be preliminary.

The elected bodies met Monday night in a City Hall workshop lasting about 90 minutes, and set their sights on another joint workshop Nov. 20, when Superintendent of Schools Suzanne Godin may be able to provide a glimpse into the state funding picture.

Before the November workshop, residents can learn more about the state of city public education Oct. 16 at a 7 p.m. School Board meeting that will be preceded by a 5-6:30 p.m. tour of South Portland High School.

Mayor Tom Blake and councilors are invited on the tour and will later join School Board members to discuss a State of the Schools report from Godin.

Monday’s workshop set some groundwork on how the boards function and how collaborating on services may provide tax savings.

“I can guarantee you, that number is going to change 50,000 times between November and June,” Godin said about state and general education budget numbers. She agreed that an early start to the budget process is essential.

“One of the disservices we do is that a new board and council is seated in December and the very first thing we ask you to do is start working on budget,” Godin said. “… You have no background, no understanding and no clear idea of all the work that has gone on to get to that January meeting.”

The current $39.6 million education budget easily passed voter muster in June, but there was friction between councilors and School Board members as they arrived at that amount.

School Board Chairman Rick Carter, who faces an election-year challenge from Gene Swiger, acknowledged the council has the last word on spending, but said the School Board and School Department keep students as the primary focus of budget objectives, while the council has a wider financial view.

The school budget guidelines drafted in January allowed an increase of 6 cents in the tax rate for spending, and 18 cents in debt service for the high school expansion and renovation now underway.

City Finance Director Greg L’Heureux said debt service for the $41 million bond will increase the current tax rate of $16.70 per $1,000 of assessed value by 7 cents. Other retiring debt will reduce overall municipal debt service in subsequent years. There are still $9 million in bonds left to be sold,  and L’Heureux said he expects them to be on the market next spring.

Because voters approved the School Department budget before the state biennial budget was passed by the Legislature, final Maine Department of Education subsidy amounts remained unknown.

Passage of the budget brought an unexpected windfall of $889,000; $300,000 was allocated to the city’s Secondary Schools Facilities Reserve fund.

Councilor Linda Cohen cautioned councilors and School Board members about their expectations and taxpayers’ perceptions.

“It seems like we are sitting around the table already anticipating an increase, and I don’t think we should be doing that,” Cohen said. “… I can’t imagine that the taxpayers out there are too comfortable with us thinking we are automatically going to give an increase.”

Councilors Melissa Linscott and Jerry Jalbert said they are not looking to micromanage school finances, but having a wealth of information available would allow better understanding of School Departments goals and achievements.

“You throw a dollar figure out there, but what does that really translate to? What is that getting the kid in the fifth grade?” Linscott asked.

City Manager Jim Gailey and Godin said the municipal and school departments already collaborate on purchasing supplies, information technology operations, field maintenance, and some payroll operations. They said other cost-saving collaborations will be hard to find because of streamlined operations.

But if new city and school collaborations are less likely, Godin and Gailey were optimistic about other regional collaborations, including possible merger of city and Portland bus services, and South Portland School Department technicians maintaining bus fleets from other districts.

Because city plow crews are already short staffed and five of 25 city plow routes are contracted to private companies, combining snow clearing operations is not feasible, Gailey said.

“I don’t see anything that is glaring we can jump into and save $50,000,” he said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

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