Board OKs new school districs - South Portland's plan to redistrict overshadows a budget increase

Portland Press Herald (ME) - Tuesday, March 11, 2008
Author: JOSIE HUANG Staff Writer

The Board of Education unanimously approved next year's school budget Monday night, as well as a controversial plan to redistrict 141 students. 

At nearly $40 million, the budget is 2.3 percent higher than this year's budget and is projected to raise tax bills by 36 cents per $1,000 valuation. 

However, the 25 parents who spoke at City Hall focused only on redistricting. Most implored the school board to delay the plan - first outlined on Feb. 28 - until more public comment or professional expertise is sought. Some argued that a better developed plan would delay the need for more redistricting in the future. 

''I am a strong advocate for outsourcing this,'' said Nathan Murray, whose daughter would be moved from Skillin Elementary School to Kaler Elementary School. ''Admit to the fact that we are not the experts in demographics, in redistricting, and go get some help.'' 

But after listening to more than an hour of testimony, board members held to the stance that redistricting must happen this year to balance enrollment at the five elementary schools. Skillin has surpassed its target enrollment of 400, while Kaler is around 220. 

Without redistricting, South Portland would have to spend roughly $302,000 for new positions and possibly $100,000 for portable classrooms, said business manager Polly Ward. 

The redistricting plan would let students whose first language is not English attend their neighborhood schools. Officials said they were concerned that some families were not taking advantage of the English Language Learners curriculum because it is offered only at Brown Elementary School and Mahoney Middle School. 

Richard Carter, the board's chairman, tried to reassure parents, saying he saw their reluctance to change schools as an indication that they like their children's current schools. 

''There is no child who is going to lose in this situation in the long run,'' Carter said. 

Bill Barthelman, a parent who helped develop the plan approved by the board, said, ''No one wants to redistrict but I think that what's on the table is as good as we can find.'' 

The final plan adjusted the boundaries in the proposal presented by Superintendent Suzanne Godin last month and lowered the number of affected students from 170 to 141. 

The revised plan pleased residents around Highland Avenue whose children will keep attending Dyer School. But parents from Thornton Heights and Brick Hill described feeling disenfranchised. 

So did Andrea Bolduc, whose son is the only one in his kindergarten class at Brown who would be redistricted. She wiped away tears as board members took turns expressing support for the plan, and stood to speak at the end of the meeting. 

The vote was 6-0 for both the budget and the redistricting. One board member, Karen Callaghan, was absent. 

The school budget goes to the City Council for approval, then will be subject to a citywide vote under the new state law. Taxpayers are being asked to pay $33.8 million of the budget. The state is expected to provide $4 million - $683,000 less than this year. Another $2 million will come from revenue such as renting out school space. 

Ward said the budget increase results from negotiated pay increases and the rising cost of fuel and insurance.