PORTLAND – The city Finance Committee got its first look at a proposed $82.2 million School Department budget Tuesday and warned that the full City Council may not support a 4.9 percent school spending increase in light of declining student enrollment and rising state funding.
School Superintendent Mary Jo O‘Connor told members of the Finance Committee the schools were seeking $3.8 million more in the fiscal 2007 budget to accommodate a large number of incoming kindergartners with autism and to continue to service the 1,700 English Language Learners in the school system.
She said as a whole, the Portland schools have 10 times as many students with some sort of autism than the national average. The national average is one autistic child per 1,000, O’Connor said; Portland has 70 in a population of just over 7,000.
“These 7,300 kids are not the same 7,300 or 8,000 kids we had 10 years ago,” O‘Connor said. “They demand different resources from us.”
Also contributing to the increased budget is a $2.4 million increase in employee pay and benefits and a more than 50 percent increase in utility costs.
The schools want to add more than two dozen new positions, despite the loss of a projected 143 students in 2007. School Committee Finance Chairman Otis Thompson said the schools had already added 13 of those positions during the 2006 school year. He also said the new East End school will require additional staff, and four new positions would be added at Casco Bay High School.
Under the new Essential Programs and Services (EPS) program the state approved last year, the schools were entitled to an increase of $2 million in state funding. Councilor Jim Cloutier said he wanted to see a side-by-side comparison of what the School Department wants to spend on each line item compared to what this new state formula says should be spent.
“I hope we can at least get a thumbnail calculation of how these things square up with essential programs and services,” he said. Cloutier said he is unsure the council would support a 4.9 percent increase.
Councilor Ed Suslovic asked the schools to provide information on staff positions and programs funded by outside grants, which did not appear in the budget. An example would be $100,000 the Gates Foundation gave for Casco Bay High School. He also asked to see what was funded through Title 1 – a federal programs schools qualify for depending on how many students get free or discounted lunch.
Committee Chairman Nick Mavodones asked the schools to send April 1 enrollment numbers and an estimated head count for the new East End school.
Tom Zimmerman of Williams Street said he did not support a 4.9 percent increase for the schools because of the additional state funding and because property taxes are already on the rise because of a revaluation. He suggested the schools come back with a requested increase of $2.5 million.
The City Council has the final say on the school budget, but can only recommend an overall percentage cut or increase; it cannot make recommendations on items in the budget.
The council Finance Committee will hold a public hearing on the school and city budget proposals April 18 at 6:30 p.m. In the Deering High School cafeteria.