Updated: Superintendent Morse’s $94.9M Portland school budget proposal

Superintendent James Morse was scheduled to pull the curtain back on his fiscal year 2013 budget proposal Tuesday night during a meeting of the school committee at Casco Bay High School. The budget will be his last as the top administrator for the Portland schools, as he’s retiring from the position in June and heading to Durham, N.H., for a new start as superintendent of the Oyster River School District.

Morse’s plan calls for the city to spend just more than $94.9 million on education in the coming year, a early $5.5 million increase — or a hike of 6.13 percent — compared to the current year’s district budget of just less than $89.5 million.

However, thanks to increases in state and federal subsidies, as well as a $1.3 million carryover from the previous budget, the proposed increase in spending doesn’t correspond exactly to a proposed increase in local taxes. To support Morse’s 2013 budget, Portland would have to raise 3.65 percent more in taxes for education than in fiscal year 2012 ($71.9 million in 2013, versus $69.4 million in ’12).

It’s perhaps worth pointing out here that that’s not a 3.65 percent increase in property taxes to Portland residents, rather a 3.65 percent increase in the amount the city must raise to fund education. The difference is that while schools make up a big part of the overall city budget, it’s not the entire thing. That increase in spending on education could be offset by reductions in spending on other city departments, or it could be part of a larger citywide tax increase as costs in other departments also rise.

In his memo to the school board, Morse notes that his budget calls for increased spending early childhood education, kindergarten-through-second grade literacy, world languages education in the elementary school grades, high school programming, facilities maintenance and technology.

Here are some budget details as provided in an afternoon announcement by the district:

Major initiatives in the superintendent’s proposed budget include:

  • Doubling enrollment in the district’s pre-kindergarten program. That would be done with no additional staffing costs by creating morning and afternoon sessions rather than a single session.
  • Adding Spanish instruction to the fifth grade curriculum.  Over the past two years, the district has begun teaching Spanish in grades three and four. The addition of fifth grade instruction will not require additional staff.
  • Negotiating a $2 million lease-purchase of technology equipment in FY 2013 that requires an initial payment of just $526,000.  The system would buy laptops for high school students and elementary school teachers, increase the number of laptop carts available through the district and make system upgrades during the first year of a four-year plan to upgrade technology.  The district and city also are investigating merging of their technology departments.

During the past five years, the Portland Public Schools has cut staffing by more than 100 positions. The proposed budget would eliminate eight positions in the current budget and add eight additional positions, resulting in no net change in staffing. “We cannot make any more cuts in our staff without impacting programs and services,” said Morse.

Here’s how the superintendent described his reasoning and some context in that memo to the board, with a couple of links added by me to past stories on these topics:

Early childhood education continues as a long term solution to Portland’s high school completion rate and drop out problem. Children who start out without basic literacy skills too easily fall behind. The Pre-school effort underway builds upon partnerships with other community providers such as Headstart and Catherine Morrill Pre-School. In this budget I am proposing we expand such partnerships to include Governor Baxter School for the Deaf and others. This is an investment in Portland’s future; we are unique in our ability to attract non-public school partners.

The FY13 budget includes increasing service to 150 students without adding staff. PreK-2 literacy program was reorganized in FY12 to reflect best practices as recommended in the comprehensive literacy audit. We adopted Fountas and Pinnell K-3 phonics program that reflects the scientific teaching of phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension as pare of a balanced literacy program. In FY13 we will continue to work with this approach and emphasize writing. All elementary schools will have a certified reading teacher in reading to support our classroom teachers, but most importantly, to increase student achievement.

The proposed budget continues the commitment to elementary World Language. This is year three of a three-year plan to implement Spanish in grades 3, 4, and 5. We propose expanding to grade 5 without new staff. Portland already is a multilingual community. Preparing our students for the future requires a comprehensive approach in World Language elementary through high school. Research supports that such a program increases student performance in literacy.

Moving forward in the development of student-centered learning models at the high schools will be supported through use of Nellie Mae funds. These funds will allow the district to develop sustainable structures that give students the ability to extend their learning beyond the classroom. The grant also deepens existing community partnerships.

The proposed budget includes additional funds for facilities maintenance. Buildings across the system are in need of repair, renovation, and replacement. These funds will continue the work of ensuring that our students are safe and that we can respond to pressing maintenance issues.

Technology is critical in a 21st Century education. This budget includes new technology funds. These funds will be used to begin the purchase of laptops for high school students, outfit all elementary school teachers with laptops, and increase the number of laptop carts available across the district. These funds will also support systems upgrades.

This budget moves us forward in implementing the Vision of Portland Public Schools “All learners will be fully prepared to participate and succeed in a diverse and ever-changing world.”

And if you want to look at the numbers and all the cost centers:

Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.