Portsmouth schools hold the line on budget

Ports. school admin building

Ports. school admin buildingPORTSMOUTH — Before an empty audience Monday night, the School Committee formally approved a $37.42 million budget proposal for 2013-2014 that represents a .4 percent decrease over the current spending plan.

The $37,419,133 budget, $149,307 less than the current one, was sent to the Town Council for review. The contribution from local taxpayers would be $30.25 million, the same figure as in the current budget.

The slight decrease in the budget comes despite the fact that federal aid to the district is expected to be cut in half ($133,000 compared to the current $263,000) and the anticipated state aid of $5.1 million represents a reduction of about 4.6 percent.

In addition, the budget also includes new spending in the way of an all-day kindergarten program for next year. The committee is expected to approve the new program at its regular meeting tonight (March 26).

Committee Chairman David Croston said the budget vote took place on Monday, rather than Tuesday when the School Committee usually meets, because the Town Charter dictates that the school budget “must be brought forth by March 25.”

Mr. Croston called the proposed budget “one of the first balanced budgets we’ve brought over to the Town Council” in years.

“One of the challenges we’ve put on the administration is to not just carry forward budgets from year to year. What we’ve looked at are the actual expenses to run this district, so what we’ve found is that some budget line items, some categories, were actually inflated,” he said.

Some of the bigger savings were found in payroll and benefits, he said.

“We’re finding on the payroll line items and some of the benefit line items, that there were greater savings in the actual expenditures than were budgeted. What we’re trying to do is get to a budget that we can really sustain over the next five years,” said Mr. Croston, adding that will be “a constant struggle” when state aid is reduced every year.

Supt. Lynn Krizic characterized the new approach to scrutinizing the budget as “a seismic shift.”

“We based the budget on actuals and the best-known data that we currently had. So rather than carrying amounts forward and adding percentages on, we dug deep into each of the line items,” Dr. Krizic said.

Mr. Croston said the committee is mindful that the school spending plan affects every other town department.

“It’s not us versus them,” he said, adding that he believes the Town Council will look favorably on the school spending plan.

“I don’t see any issue there. I think where you’ll see some interesting discussion is around the use of our surplus dollars to actually fund some of the capital needs we have in the district,” he said, noting that the department has two fire code upgrades that need to be done at Melville and Hathaway schools.

“We’re bonding $750,000 for Melville, (but) we may actually pay cash for the $750,000 at Hathaway. Again, we’re trying to bring as much understanding that everything in this town needs to be balanced. If we go into debt, then the town has to carry that debt service.”

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