The South Portland Board of Education has added nearly $389,000 to the superintendent’s proposed budget for music and literacy programs.

Public pressure and its own inclinations have led the South Portland Board of Education to put several positions back into the proposed new fiscal year budget, adding $388,724 to the bottom line initially proposed by Superintendent Suzanne Godin.

After hearing near-unanimous public comment, the board has kept the fifth-grade band program, as well as five library clerks, an elementary school literacy teacher and the school district’s completion coordinator, whose job is to ensure students are on track to graduate on time.

Godin’s proposed budget of $45.8 million already represented a nearly $1 million increase in school spending compared with this year’s budget, but board members and the public felt strongly about maintaining the current literacy focus and keeping fifth-grade band as part of the regular school day.

With the additional spending, the school department’s fiscal year 2015-2016 budget now stands at $46.2 million, which represents a 3.65 percent increase overall, according to Godin. The City Council will now deliberate on the combined municipal and school budget to create a final spending package.

Once the council approves its own version of the school budget, it will then go to the voters in a citywide referendum. The City Council was scheduled to hold a public hearing on the combined budget on Wednesday, after the Current’s print deadline.

Under the previously proposed combined spending package, city residents were looking at a possible tax rate increase of 57 cents per $1,000 of valuation. However that is likely to change as the council makes its final budget decisions, which it must do prior to the start of the new fiscal year on July 1.

During a public hearing held on the proposed school budget last week, Godin said the decision to cut positions was not done “without agony” and a lot of thought. She said her recommendation to reduce positions was based on her charge to put “together a budget that makes educational sense.”

However, the majority of people who spoke at the March 26 public hearing passionately disagreed with Godin’s proposal to eliminate library clerks, a literacy teacher and to make the fifth-grade program an extra-curricular activity offered outside of the regular school day.

Kathy DiPhilippo, whose kids are no longer in elementary school, said she felt “very, very strongly” about offering music education to young children. She said Godin’s argument that removing students from class twice a week for band has a negative impact on their academics didn’t make sense.

“Study after study has shown that teaching music and foreign language are the best things we can do for students” and their overall academic achievements, DiPhilippo said. She also said that “one of our biggest assets in South Portland is our music program.”

Mike Fletcher, a member of the music boosters, agreed with DiPhilippo. He said that while he understands it’s difficult to put together a budget, the school department should have involved the music boosters before Godin made the recommendation to move fifth-grade band outside of the school day.

He said that’s one reason the school board has seen “a sea” of red-shirted music boosters at recent budget meetings.

“Our music boosters organization is the largest and most active in the state and if you’d involved us (early on) we could have come up with some ideas,” Fletcher said.

He added, “We all realize that cuts need to be made,” but that it would be better to have collaboration rather than a divisive debate.

Beth Doane, who is also active with the music boosters, said the high performance of the city’s high school musicians starts with the fifth-grade band program.

She said hundreds of students are involved in the band programs at South Portland High School and that the school has a tradition of bringing home medals from various music festivals along with numerous outstanding musicianship awards.

“That high level of performance begins with the fifth-grade program,” Doane said.

Parent Ian Meng also argued in favor of continuing to offer fifth-grade band during the school day, and said the proposal to make it an extra-curricular activity was based on “ignorance regarding the (positive) impact of music on learning. We should not make it more difficult to participate.”

Arguing to retain the library clerks and literacy teacher, parent Jennifer Christiansen said that although her family “works hard on literacy at home,” her children have also benefited from the literacy support available through the schools. She said her second-grader was recently diagnosed with dyslexia, but with the help of the literacy specialist at his school he’s made significant progress in his reading in just the last three months.

“Our library clerks also uniquely encourage and foster literacy and student engagement” in reading, Christiansen said. She added that the clerks are “invaluable” in helping students “find that just-right book.”

“I don’t understand how the school district can move forward if we cut the lifeline between books, reading and our students. These positions are critical, not expendable,” she added.

Cindi Farris, a literacy specialist at Dyer Elementary School, said studies clearly show that early intervention “works so much better than reading remediation later on.”

She said that it’s “very important” for the school district to have a full-time literacy teacher at each of its elementary schools because they provide critical support for the unique needs of students and families.

“We need to maintain, not reduce (our literacy) supports,” Farris added. “We can’t achieve the results we all desire by eliminating a literacy teacher position.”

And parent Greg Lewis said that at the elementary school level, music and literacy are much more important than technology.

“In my opinion there’s far too great a focus on technology, especially in the lower grades,” he said, arguing that money could be found to support music and literacy through cuts to administrative costs.

Lewis said his analysis shows that school administrative costs have risen steadily and that by far “the highest percentage increase in the budget is for school administration.”


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