PORTLAND — Despite the likelihood that the City Council will find the level of spending unacceptable, the School Board is expected to approve a nearly $112 million fiscal year 2019 budget when it meets this week.
The board is slated to hold its final vote on the budget at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 12, at Casco Bay High School. The spending package will then go to the City Council for review and will ultimately go to voters in a citywide referendum later this spring.
During a public hearing last week, the board heard mostly from supporters of the budget, which, according to School Department officials, would now add 70 cents to the tax rate, or $168 annually to the tax bill for a home valued at $240,000.
The budget represents a 6.6 percent increase in spending, which is significantly above the combined municipal and school increase of 2.5 percent a majority of city councilors recently said they would be willing to support.
Representing the district’s Administrators Association, Kathy Marquis-Girard, an assistant principal at Portland High School, told the School Board April 3 that she’s grateful it has retained the majority of the superintendent’s original recommended budget.
She argued that the spending is necessary to “giving all kids equal access (and) our commitment to the Portland Promise,” the school district’s new comprehensive plan. Marquis-Girard also said the $112 million budget is needed to fulfill the district’s “vision and our mission.”
Resident David Hopkinson agreed, saying the budget as it now stands “helps our students and our community move forward.” He also argued that “education should be the focus of the entire community.”
“Each child should get the same opportunity to learn and succeed,” no matter their background, said Hopkinson, adding he hopes the School Department will continue to teach kids to “think and be good citizens.”
Matt Reading from Peaks Island thanked the School Board for rejecting a proposal to close the elementary school there, which serves 37 students.
He called Peaks Island Elementary School “the beating heart of our community” and said its importance to the community is undeniable.
Jen Boggs, who has a child at Longfellow Elementary, told the board “education is critical to the economy of Portland” and “if we keep the focus on educating our kids the investment will pay off for the city big time.”
Mayor Ethan Strimling said he hoped the City Council would “hear about the importance of putting kids first. It’s just short-sighted to think we can cut (spending) and also make advancements.”
But the discussion at a joint School Board and City Council Finance Committee meeting on April 5 stood in stark contrast to the message the School Board received only two days earlier.
At that joint meeting, Councilor Nick Mavodones, chairman of the council’s Finance Committee, said, “There are 66,000 people in this city and they’re saying this (school) budget is way too high.”
Essentially, he was warning the School Board that the real-time feedback he’s been receiving from constituents is “diametrically opposed” to the message the School Board’s been getting, which is to conserve the superintendent’s budget as much as possible.
“This is an issue of what we can afford,” Mavodones added. “Everybody up here cares about education and teaching and learning, but we also have to be cognizant of the municipal side of the budget. We can’t have it all.”
He also said as the council’s Finance Committee deliberates on the combined budget, “We need to be able to have some frank discussion. We need simple, clear information, not spun information.”
Mavodones said if the City Council does end up requesting a reduction in the school budget “it won’t be the end of education as we know it, even though that’s the narrative that’s out there.”
Councilor Justin Costa, who is also a member of the city’s Finance Committee, added, “I’m worried about the process. We’re nowhere close to the largest increase we’ve ever approved” for school spending.
That was 3.8 percent, he said, and the current school budget is “way above that.” He, too, warned the School Board that even the $3.4 million reduction in spending that was originally considered and rejected might not be enough to satisfy councilors.
“We may end up picking a number without regard to what it means programmatically, even though I don’t want to do that,” Costa said. “We collectively have a decision to make and I need to understand our range of options at a given number.”