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Tuesday, April 11, 2006

"Greens Discontent with School Budget Process" by Stephen Nunns in the Portland Forecaster: April 5, 2006

PORTLAND – School Committee members were divided last week over the $82.2 million budget proposed by Superintendent Mary Jo O’Connor, with some members asking for a revised version reflecting either less of an increase or no increase at all, and others suggesting the budget should move forward for City Council consideration.

The official first reading of the proposed fiscal year 2007 budget is planned when the committee meets on Wednesday, April 5, at 6 p.m. in Room 250 of the Portland Arts and Technology High School. The budget is scheduled to be presented to the City Council on April 11.

The opponents were members of the Green Party – Ben Meiklejohn, Jason Toothaker and Stephen Spring – who called on the superintendent to offer an alternative set of numbers that would reflect something less than the 4.9 percent increase suggested in her proposed budget.

“We were offered various scenarios last year,” said Meiklejohn. “I found that useful.”

Meiklejohn said he would like to see how a more modest, 2.82 percent increase might play out. That was the number originally suggested by committee members before O’Connor began assembling the budget.

He also said offering alternative scenarios would give the public more of an opportunity to help decide which programs must be cut in order to come up with the lower figure.

That rankled Otis Thompson, who suggested that such mechanisms would unnecessarily impede the process. He mentioned that last year’s budget deliberations ground to a halt at one point over one committee member’s resistance to cutting services to multilingual parents.

“That was an issue for one person on the board,” Thompson said. “It was not close to a majority consideration.”

Thompson also maintained that it would more effective to get a budget to the City Council and then see what its response is before putting together a myriad of different budget scenarios.

“When you have to (make cuts), you come up with different recommendations,” he said.

Spring agreed with Meiklejohn and said that different scenarios would “inform the public.”

Spring also criticized the budget schedule. “As a member of the Finance Committee, I would like to see evidence that we have been following the guidelines,” he said.

Jonathan Radke, another committee member, agreed with Thompson that scenario budgets are unnecessary. “It just causes anxiety,” he said.

“We don’t need to know the ‘what ifs?’” he said. “We all know ‘what if.’ People will lose their jobs – that’s the ‘what if.’”

Thompson also suggested that the only way to make the size of cuts necessary to reduce the budget in such a substantial way would require losing entire programs and, conceivably, an entire school. He noted that the closing of the Baxter School two years ago was as an attempt to lower costs.

“Unless we cut programs and close buildings and increase class size, we won’t get the numbers down,” he said.

Thompson and Toothaker, who is the chairman of the Elementary Facilities Task Force, sparred over this point, with Toothaker maintaining that the idea large savings could be realized by closing schools was a smoke screen for more difficult cuts that could be made on an administrative level. He said more thought needed to be put into consolidating services with the city.

“We need to be bold and creative,” he said.

“Being bold and creative will be part of my repertoire when there are five votes,” Thompson replied.

O’Connor said closing schools is not a viable option at this moment. She noted that there is no room in the larger schools to squeeze in the populations of the either of the smallest schools in the city, Presumpscot and Nathan Clifford.

“We’re not going to close an elementary school,” she said, adding: “Unless you tell me to.”

Only five members of the committee engaged in the partisan debate. Finance Committee member John Coyne only asked that the committee consider reinstating a social worker position that had been eliminated. And the three other members of the committee, Ellen Alcorn, Susan Hopkins and Lori Gramlich, all concentrated on broader policy questions or querying specific line items.

After the meeting, Hopkins ribbed Toothaker about the overabundance of testosterone in the room.

“So, when do we get to the point when you and Otis tear off your shirts and begin beating your chests?” she asked.

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