Friday, May 04, 2007

Press Herald

Told to cut $500,000, schools spent it

By KELLEY BOUCHARD, Staff Writer Portland Press Herald
Friday, May 4, 2007

Portland school officials spent $500,000 that they were supposed to cut from this year's budget, city councilors learned Thursday evening.

The action means school officials defied a City Council order last spring to reduce the $82 million school budget by $500,000.

News of the overspending came as the council's finance committee resumed its largely unwelcome scrutiny of a proposed $86.4 million school budget for the coming year. The council is expected to pass a budget for all city departments on May 21.

School Committee members continued to criticize the council's finance committee for its in-depth study and probing questions, even after school officials revealed that they have overspent the current school budget.

Outside the meeting at City Hall, council finance committee members Edward Suslovic, David Marshall and James Cohen, the chairman, said they were disturbed by the overspending.
Suslovic and Marshall said it raises the question of whether school officials will actually reduce spending if the council orders a budget reduction for the coming year.

"It was a very troubling revelation," Suslovic said.

School officials said they intended to reduce the current year's budget by $500,000 through anticipated salary reductions when long-term employees retired and were replaced by lower-paid new employees.

However, they wound up spending the money to hire 25 additional people, including several special education teachers.

"We just didn't have it to cut," said Superintendent Mary Jo O'Connor after the meeting.

Despite the overspending, O'Connor and School Committee Chairman John Coyne said the council can trust school officials to make real budget reductions in the coming year.

By city charter, the council sets the bottom line for the school budget and school officials decide how to spend it.

The proposed school budget is up $4.4 million, 5.4 percent, over current spending. The proposed $183 million budget for all other city departments is up $8 million, 4.6 percent, over current spending.

School officials have been asking the finance committee for several weeks to recommend a bottom line.

Suslovic said an increase closer to the city's 4.6 percent would be more acceptable. That would require a $750,000 reduction.

Coyne and other School Committee members said a budget reduction of that size would have a significant effect on school programs.

Coyne also said school officials feel "ganged up on" by councilors. Committee member Sarah
Hopkins described it as a "tug of war."

O'Connor offered a final rebuttal against councilors' criticism that school budget information has been late and remains incomplete.

She and her staff have been "wrongly accused of not being forthcoming with information," she said. "It has never been our intention to be sneaky or underhanded."

The council will hold a public hearing on the combined $269 million city and school spending plan at 7 p.m. Monday in the council chamber at City Hall.

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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