Portsmouth schools OK $37.95M budget

Ports. school admin building

PORTSMOUTH — Before only a handful of people, the School Committee Wednesday night voted 5-2 to approve a $37,951,969 budget for fiscal year 2015.

Ports. school admin buildingThe budget represents a 2.4 percent increase over the current spending plan and eliminates 12 staff positions in order to save about $652,000. It will now be sent to the Town Council for its consideration.

Committee members John Wojichowski and Andrew Kelly voted against the budget.

“The reduction of 12 positions will have an impact on our education,” Mr. Kelly said.

Mr. Wojichowski twice tried to amend the budget, but both attempts failed. In the first, he wanted to add $274,531, a move he said would increase the budget by 3.3 percent and reduce only seven staff positions. That amendment was voted down 6-1.

In the second amendment, Mr. Wojichowski moved to change the amount of money the district is taking from its surplus from $300,000 down to $200,000. “If we do that, we’re adding $148,287 to the town appropriation. That would change the town appropriation to 2.89 percent,” he said.

That amendment failed 4-3, with Mr. Wojichowski, Mr. Kelly and Emily Copeland voting in favor.

Yet another amendment, by Ms. Copeland, would have added $75,000 to the budget for professional development. That, too, failed in a 6-1 vote.

Most council members said they were concerned that the council will not approve an increase of more than 2.4 percent, the number that has been thrown around for weeks.

“We’ve met with the town multiple times and we’ve talked about 2.4,” said committee member Terri Cortvriend, saying the committee should be consistent.

Council member Thomas Vadney agreed, saying he couldn’t “think of a town in the state that wouldn’t flat-fund” a school district that had surplus dollars.

Committee Chairman David Croston said the district’s five-year budget forecast, which includes an annual 2.4 percent increase in town appropriation, projects a $1 million operational deficit by fiscal year 2018 with no additional fund balance to cover.

“I would hate to recommend cutting anyone, but we’ve got to get our revenue in line with our expenses,” he said.

Larry Fitzmorris of the taxpayer watchdog group Portsmouth Concerned Citizens was the only member of the public to speak on the budget Wednesday night. While he thanked the committee and School Finance Director Chris DiIuro for improving the budget documents, he took officials to task on several matters.

The primary reason for the district’s budget woes, Mr. Fitzmorris said, “is because you didn’t understand your labor contracts when you approved them.” Labor costs increased by more than $1 million to the 2015 school budget, then the committee proposed cutting 12 positions, he said.

“You didn’t have any choice because you put yourself in that spot,” said Mr. Fitzmorris.

Council member Fred Faerber said Portsmouth teachers actually get paid less than those in comparable communities. The district has an obligation to offer competitive salaries to attract the best teachers, he said.

Mr. Fitzmorris countered by saying the committee also represents the taxpayers, many of whom are struggling to make ends meet. “You need to take a broader view,” he said.

Mr. Fitzmorris also criticized the state for its formula used to determine funding for local municipalities. (The district is projected to lose $246,500 in state aid for next year.) He compared state school aid to tolls on local bridges; they’re intended to support big city districts.

“Both are an example of the state assembly mugging the East Bay for funding,” he said. “You need to gang up on them.”

T3 Project approved

Also Wednesday night, the committee unanimously voted to select a contractor for the “T3” athletic field upgrades at the high school. The work is expected to start during the April school vacation.

The committee awarded the job to Green Acres Landscaping & Construction Co., Inc. of Lakeville, Mass, which was the low bidder at about $2.3 million.

The upgrades include improvements to the football field (including an artificial turf cover), track and tennis courts, for which the district has set aside $2.5 million, including $1.8 million from its fund surplus. More than $500,000 in private donations will be used toward a fund for ongoing maintenance as well as “extras” to enhance the facilities.

In a separate vote, the committee approved $10,200 for one of the alternates jobs included in the bids — a “P” logo on the football field.

Ms. Copeland and Mr. Kelly voted against the extra money for the logo.

“Here we are cutting positions … “ said Ms. Copeland. “I think we’re already doing quite an adequate field upgrade. Ten thousand dollars for the letter P. Really?”

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