Divided school board passes super’s budget unchanged
City Council may demand cuts
By Chris Busby
The Portland School Committee voted 5-4 to pass Superintendent Mary Jo O’Connor’s budget on April 10. The school board made no changes to the super’s spending request, which now goes to the City Council for consideration.
As has been the case during several other important votes, the ostensibly non-partisan board split along party lines. The four members enrolled in the Green Independent Party (Stephen Spring, Ben Meiklejohn, Jason Toothaker and Susan Hopkins) were trumped by the five registered Democrats (Jonathan Radtke, Otis Thompson, Lori Gramlich, John Coyne and board chairperson Ellen Alcorn).
O’Connor’s $82.2 million budget would raise spending by over $3.8 million, almost 5 percent more than last year. The Greens objected to the size of this increase, which would require a 2.2 percent increase in the property tax rate. That tax increase is expected to be slightly larger once the school budget is combined with the budget for city services. Councilors will consider the combined budget in the coming weeks, with a final vote expected May 15.
The school district’s enrollment is expected to continue to decline, as it has for the past 10 years. Next fall, school officials expect there will be 143 fewer students than this year, a 2 percent decrease. “I had a hard time trying to justify a 5 percent increase with the declining enrollment,” said Toothaker. “The taxpayers are upset, and they let me know [that].”
O’Connor said the bulk of the increase is necessary to cover the cost of raises for teachers and other school staff. (O’Connor herself got a 3 percent raise last year following a bruising, divisive debate between the same partisan factions on the board.) Other factors driving the increase are fuel costs and higher expenses necessary to teach special education students and those learning English as their second language.
At an April 11 meeting with the council’s Finance Committee, O’Connor said her budget was not a “pie in the sky” request. Funding requests from principals and district department heads would have necessitated a $10 million spending increase, she said, and it was hard work to pare that down to just $3.8 million more.
O’Connor also noted that the special education students currently in the district and expected to arrive this fall “are not the same group of students we had 10 years ago.” The new group requires a different type of assistance, she said. In particular, the district now teaches a high percentage of students suffering from autism and Asperger’s Disorder. Twelve autistic kindergarteners are expected to enter the system next fall, prompting school administrators to create a new program specifically designed to meet those students’ needs.
The rate of children with Asperger’s in Portland schools is many times the national average, school officials said – an alarming trend that may prompt a formal public health study later this year. It’s unclear whether the spike in Asperger’s cases is the result of better diagnosis of the disorder or some environmental or health factor, like mercury pollution or parental drug abuse.
Toothaker and Spring both said the school district should be saving money by consolidating jobs and tasks with city workers. They also said the district should consider making middle school sports an intramural competition between the city’s three middle schools, rather than busing those students to compete against teams from other towns.
Democrats on the board said they are willing to discuss these ideas, but not this late in the budget process. Alcorn said O’Connor will be completing a strategic plan for the district this summer, and after that, “there may be a process where we can have these discussions in a less pressured and more substantive way.”
At the April 11 Finance Committee meeting, City Councilors Nick Mavodones and Jim Cloutier gave no indication whether they will support O’Connor’s budget request. In past years, the council has demanded that the school department make further budget cuts after the school board approved its spending plan.
Neither Mavodones, a former school board member, nor Cloutier said they feel the divided school board vote on the budget was significant. “They have a lot of 5-4 votes,” Cloutier noted.