Additional Portland school funding likely headed to Sept. 4 vote

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PORTLAND — Voters will likely see another school budget referendum in September after a majority of the City Council Finance Committee voted last week to recommend the referendum to the council.

In a 3-1 vote on July 25, with Chairman John Anton opposed, the committee recommended the council on Aug. 5 take up the issue of holding a Sept. 4 referendum to accept $1.9 million in additional state aid.

The funding would increase the state’s contribution to Portland’s schools from $13.9 million to $15.8 million. Taxes will not increase if voters approve the larger budget.

School officials have said they would like to use the money to cover about $1.4 million in new costs for teacher retirements and, according to Superintendent of Schools Emmanuel Caulk, restore eight of the nearly 40 positions cut in the $96.4 million fiscal 2014 budget approved in May.

The positions include assistant principals, education technicians, support specialists and high school teachers. After being laid off initially, a few of the assistant principals left the district for other school systems, including a former Maine Teacher of the Year, Gloria Noyes, Caulk said.

He said the district also wants to use the additional aid to cover an estimated $20,000 in tuition costs for two more Portland students who will be attending charter schools, as required by the state.

The department’s chief financial officer, Michael Wilson, who joined last week’s meeting via telephone, said waiting to know whether the department will receive the additional state aid produces uncertainty and complicates the mechanics of monitoring the budget.

Without a public vote on the additional money, the school system is left to manually input data into the budget because of how the accounting software operates, Wilson said. This could lead to significant labor costs and would also be prone to error, he said.

“As time goes on it only becomes more and more difficult,” Wilson said, noting that when school begins the budget will become more complicated. “We’re doing what we can without the budget in there, but as you can imagine as the months go on, it becomes much more difficult.”

He also said the ability to monitor the budget becomes more difficult without knowing how much money the department will have for the school year.

Councilor Nicholas Mavodones Jr. agreed November is too long to wait for the supplemental budget vote.

“I’m less concerned about it being inputted, than them not being able monitor the budget,” he said. “School is going to start anyway and we need to inject some certainty into it and not have a whole host of distractions. I think (a Sept. 4 vote) is the way to go.”

But Mayor Michael Brennan said he doesn’t see a problem with waiting until November.

“I’m glad we’re in this position now instead of the one we were in in May,” he said at the meeting. “Regardless of what we decided in May we’d still be here deciding how to spend $500,000. … I don’t have the same urgency that you have with the referendum process.”

Although the School Board at its July 23 meeting recommended councilors schedule the referendum on the supplemental budget for August, procedurally the city is required to provide a 30-day notice before an election.

Councilors also have to hold two public readings before they schedule a vote to authorize more than $500, according to council rules. State law only requires one meeting. To fit in the two readings before the 30-day period, the council will hold its two monthly meetings consecutively on Aug. 5. 

This could be seen as at odds with the spirit of the law, which is intended to provide ample time for the public to attend and comment, but City Attorney Danielle West-Chuhta said she does not think that is the case.

She said there has been “significant public comment already allowed” at School Board and Finance Committee meetings, and that while the budget season has been different than previous years, procedurally the council is not doing anything extraordinary.

If the council schedules the Sept. 4 vote, City Clerk Katherine Jones said the referendum will cost the city about $13,000.

Will Graff can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @W_C_Graff.