$90M Portland school budget faces City Council scrutiny

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PORTLAND — The School Committee sent a $90 million budget to the City Council that restores a music program and eliminates 45 jobs.

But the plan could face resistance on the council, which has the final say on school spending.

“We did tell them where we thought the budget should come in,” said City Councilor John Coyne, a former School Committee chairman who now serves on the city’s Finance Committee.

Coyne said the goal is to have little or no tax increase. “It’s a little bit higher than what we anticipated,” he said.

Although the $90 million budget is $1.3 million smaller than the current spending level, it is projected to increase the local tax burden by $797,000, or 1.2 percent.

The budget, delivered to the council on Monday night and referred to the city Finance Committee, is nearly $250,000 larger than the one approved by the school Finance Committee.

About $160,000 in additional spending was authorized for two music teachers, while another $180,000 was sanctioned for six education technicians, including one district-wide health assistant to serve day-to-day medical needs of students.

The budget assumes the district will receive $11.9 million is state education aid, a $2.7 million, or nearly 19 percent, reduction from the current level of $14.6 million.

School Committee Chairman Peter Eglinton said the additional spending does not affect the tax impact of the budget, since the state recently indicated it would provide an additional educational subsidy of nearly $250,000.

The new state numbers are the second revision since Superintendent James C. Morse Sr. presented his budget. Hours before the initial March 3 budget presentation, the state increased its original projection by $1.6 million.

Although the schools have earmarked about $800,000 for property tax relief, Coyne said some councilors would have preferred to see more money go toward property tax relief, rather than restoring positions.

City Councilor and Finance Committee member John Anton said he believes the schools should look at the Central Office for more savings.

“I still think there are opportunities for the School Committee to reduce its budget, particularly in the administrative segment of its budget,” Anton said.

Eglinton, however, said the additional state funding allowed the district to reduce cuts that would have affected student programs.

“That additional funding only reduced the severity of the cuts,” Eglinton said. “We’re still at a significant decrease. We hope at least that will be recognized.”

While the schools would like to reduce property tax burden, Eglinton said those cuts need to be made with caution.

Last year, the district reduced the local tax burden by $2.6 million, or 1.5 percent, largely through federal stimulus funding, only to face a mid-year cuts of state education funds of $2.3 million.

“We could always face another curtailment,” Eglinton said.

Eglinton said the music positions were restored in next year’s budget with the caveat that music teachers present a plan that will either increase enrollment or reduce costs to make the program more viable.

Similar reprieves have been given to directors of athletics, co-curriculars and the Family Living Program, he said.

As a former School Committee chairman, Coyne said he sympathizes with the schools. However, the city Finance Committee needs to recommend a budget that will garner the support of a majority of the council.

“I’m not sure we have enough votes on the council to pass it,” Coyne said. “I appreciate the hard work they have done. They have to do what’s in the best interest of the district, but we have to look out for the whole city.”

City Manager Joe Gray’s $196 million budget proposal would require a 1.4 percent tax increase, or 12 cents per $1,000 of valuation. The school budget would add 11 cents per $1,000.

Portland’s property tax rate is currently $17.74 per $1,000 of valuation.

The city Finance Committee scheduled a public hearing on the school budget for April 15 at 5:30 p.m. The meeting is tentatively scheduled for Room 209 in City Hall, but could be moved to council chambers if there is a large public turnout.

A citywide referendum on the school budget is slated for May 11.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or [email protected]