Portsmouth School Committee faces challenging 2008 budget numbers
|L-R Marge Levesque, Joe Amaral, Colleen Jermain, Doug Wilkey, Chris Tague, Sue Lusi (behind) Bob Ettinger, Michael Buddemeyer, Sylvia Wedge. (Not pictured: Teri Cortvriend, Jamie Heaney, Robert Littlefield)|
The Portsmouth School Committee conducted an intial budget workshop this morning as part of their annual retreat at the Middletown Hampton Inn (courtesy of member Michael Buddemeyer), and the initial numbers they projected make the upcoming budget process look extremely difficult. Joining the School Committee were Superintendent Susan Lusi, Assistant Superintendent Colleen Jermain, Finance Director Chris Tague, and Principals Bob Littlefield, Bob Ettinger and Joseph Amaral.
During the wide-ranging discussion over the two-hour meeting, there was input from the school principals, who all echoed the same theme, that they and their staffs are working hard to do more with less. From the school administration side, there was an effort to be transparent about the numbers and engage the school committee in helping to think through creative solutions. And the school committee definitely responded -- I heard concern and creative thoughts from everyone around the table. Personally, I think the visits they conducted in all the schools probably drove home some of the practical impacts; there were repeated references to things they had seen. And I saw a real commitment around the table to do the best for our kids, and keep the Portsmouth schools the high-performing system that brings people to the town. But there are clearly serious challenges.
At a high level, I saw three key takeaways:
- Given the constraints of the S3050 cap on the levy, the total increase in next year's school budget will be around $1.2-1.3M, and over $1.1M will be immediately eaten up by estimated contract increases and funding state retirement. Depending on the final numbers, there will be about $100,000 (and maybe much less) to fund health care increases and utilities (both of which are projected to increase at about 10%) and transportation (with a known increase of 3.5%. I checked the numbers from last year, and that would work out to $52K right there.) No surprise that at one point in the discussion, Finance Director Christine Tague said, "This budget is basically done already."
- The cuts in funding over the last years have created gaps in maintenance, supplies, and support for programs within the schools which the PTOs have been valiantly pitching in to address. Finance Director Tague estimated that there is over $100,000 of parent contributions going into the District, and while this is laudable and necessary, Tague is actually getting questioned by the auditors on this because of its impact on reported per-pupil expenditures.
- While the School Committee must produce a budget within the S3050 cap, there needs to be a way to communicate to the Town Council and the community just what is being left out. But it needs to be done in a way that does not give the PCC an opening to attack an what would be perceived as an unrealistic budget. The committee seemed to be leaning in the direction of providing the Council with a "state of the schools" report, following the results of Berkshire Advisors, to be very specific about education, rather than funding, gaps that the projected budget implies.
Personally, I think Teresa Paiva-Weed ought to be confronted directly with the reality that her bill has shifted a significant portion of education funding from the taxpayers to the individual parents of schoolchildren. We are moving from a society where we believe that a common good should be paid for by all our citizens to one in which hard-working parents have to pay for what is supposed to be a tax-funded public education system. I would very much like to hear how she would respond to that. I would also like to know where are the howls of outrage from the PCC. They will stand up and complain that a transfer station sticker is a hidden tax. Well, Mr. McIntyre, what is this, if not a tax on the parents of kids in our schools?
If you have a taste for following what went on in more detail, I've posted my entire raw notes, and you can take a look here. This is not a complete transcript, but hopefully captures the essence of the discussion.