Council committee tells school board to cut $500K

Portland Superintendent Mary Jo O'Connor may need to cut her budget by half a million bucks. (photos/The Fuge)

Council committee tells school board to cut $500K
Art, music, sports could be on chopping block

By Chris Busby

The Portland City Council’s Finance Committee has directed the school department to cut $500,000 from its $82.2 million budget request. Committee members made no specific suggestions as to where the cuts should come from, but Superintendent Mary Jo O’Connor said her administration would have to consider cuts to “non-mandated” programs – like art and music instruction, sports and sex ed – if the budget reduction is approved. 

The full council is scheduled to vote on the city and school budgets during its May 15 meeting. Public comment will be taken before the vote, and the Portland School Committee plans to gather shortly before the 7 p.m. meeting to discuss the Finance Committee’s directive. 

The city council has authority over the size of the school budget, but is prohibited by the city charter from making specific cuts to programs or staff. If the council votes to reduce the school department’s budget request, it will be up to school officials to decide where to trim positions or programs.

“That’s the screwy way of our system,” said Councilor Ed Suslovic, a member of the three-person Finance Committee. “We’re not experts on educational policy,” he said, but his committee and council are in a position to dictate budget cuts that affect the way students are educated.

Suslovic said he, committee chairman Nick Mavodones, and member Jim Cloutier were generally “more supportive” of the school department’s full budget request than other councilors. Through informal discussions with council colleagues, Suslovic said the Finance Committee got the sense that the full $82.2 million budget request would not get the votes needed to pass. 

Some councilors have questioned why the school budget is about $2 million over the budget figure determined appropriate for Portland by the new state school-funding formula, called Essential Programs and Services (EPS). Some councilors apparently suggested a $2 million cut, a reduction O’Connor said would bring the district “to [its] knees.”

“The majority [of councilors] are not comfortable with it being $2 million over [the EPS figure],” Suslovic said. He characterized the proposed $500,000 cut as “a compromise.”

School board Finance Committee Chairman Otis Thompson has a different characterization. “They’re looking at this as part of the political process,” said Thompson. “There are some strong feelings on the city council about matching EPS-funding-formula levels. There are strong feelings on the school committee that EPS is not accurate.”

“I don’t think ESP is 100-percent accurate,” said Suslovic, who as a state legislator helped pass L.D. 1, the property-tax-reduction measure that instituted the new formula. The complex EPS model doesn’t give adequate weight to factors such as a district’s percentage of non-English-speaking students, special education students and low-income students, Suslovic said.

“I think the conclusion of the majority of the council is going to be that [a $500,000 reduction] probably makes the budget a little more lean without impacting, necessarily, particular programs – unless the school committee chooses to do that,” said Cloutier. 

Thompson said he wasn’t sure what the school board would cut if it needs to reduce the budget by a half million dollars. As has happened over the past several years when the council has reduced the department’s budget request, Thompson said the board will have to decide: “Do you take and destroy the program or reduce capacity in staff?”

“Yes, you can go over art, music and phys ed,” Thompson continued. “Basically, if we make a substantial reduction in the budget, we’ll have to look at staffing.” Thompson noted that the district, which spends about 80 percent of its budget on staff, is actually “well under” the staffing level recommended by the EPS formula. 

The school budget was passed by the school board on a 5-4 vote, with the minority advocating for a smaller increase over last year’s spending. 

Among the dissenters was Jason Toothaker, was said if the $500,000 cut is necessary, “a couple no-brainer moves would be nice.” Those changes include a restructuring of middle school sports so Portland teams no longer compete with other districts (a proposal that could save over $100,000 in fuel and other costs, said Toothaker) and cuts to administrative positions, such as assistant principal positions at some elementary schools.

O’Connor said some savings could be realized through a new retirement incentive the board recently approved. There could also be a five-percent reduction in each school’s discretionary spending, but the superintendent added that she’s “looking to keep cuts away from kids and programs.” 

“We’ll try to be as creative as possible,” said O’Connor.

Leave a Reply