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Portland voters, in record low turnout, OK school budget for fiscal 2013

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Portland voters, in record low turnout, OK school budget for fiscal 2013

PORTLAND — Voters approved a $94.2 million school budget for fiscal 2013 by a 2-1 margin in Tuesday's referendum.

A record low number of voters turned out, even though the budget is an increase over this year school spending and raises the city's property tax rate.

There was only one question on the ballot Tuesday: "Do you favor approving the Portland School Budget for the upcoming school year that was adopted at the latest City Council budget meeting?"

Just 1,562 voters cast ballots in this year's referendum. Exactly 1,000 voters, or 64 percent, supported the budget, according to the city clerk's office. The other 562 votes were opposed to the budget.

The voter response was less than half of the turnout in the city's first state-mandated budget referendum in 2008, when 3,500 voters participated.

Election staff at the Merrill Auditorium Rehearsal Hall and the East End Community School polling places said the pace of arriving voters was "agonizingly slow" throughout the day.

At Merrill, staff waited for 45 minutes after the polls opened for their first voter. During an hour-long period from 5:30-6:30 p.m., just three people voted.

Election staff brought outside work, magazines, laptop computers and tablet devices to occupy themselves during the periods of inactivity. At Merrill, Republican election clerk Sal Raia read out loud from a collection of jokes.

"People just don't know it's happening, or they don't care, or they're just living their lives," said District 1-1 Warden Denise Shames at the East End Community School.

For Superintendent of Schools James C. Morse Sr., the final tally was all that mattered. "I would say (a margin of 2-to-1 is) a pretty strong rate of support by the citizens of Portland," he said.

As Morse prepares to retire from the school district in June, the budget's approval means his last major milestone has passed without added drama. "I feel very validated by all the hard work we've done over the last three years," Morse said.

The budget that takes effect July 1 is a $4.7 million, or 5.3 percent, increase over the 2012 school budget.

When combined with the proposed city budget, it would increase the property tax rate 2.9 percent, to $18.82 per $1,000 of assessed value.

The School Board's Finance Committee and the City Council whittled more than $600,000 from the preliminary budget Morse unveiled in March.

The City Council had asked the board to cut the budget by $175,000, and suggested that proposed lease payments for new technology be shifted from the School Department to the city's Capital Improvement Plan. The council indicated that it would support the technology investments as part of the CIP, which has not yet been finalized.

"This has been a pretty amazing process, in that my proposed budget remained largely intact," Morse said Tuesday.

The leaner school budget maintained funding for increases to the city's adult education English language courses that will reduce the waiting list by half, as well as increases to the department's early childhood education programs at Riverton and possible new programs at Deering High School for the Longfellow community, and continued support for the high school Latin curriculum.

The budget also does not require a reduction in staff after several years of cuts. Eight positions across the district will be phased out, but eight new positions will be created, resulting in no net loss of jobs.

The budget season will culminate with the council's vote on the city budget at its May 21 meeting. Final decisions on the CIP plan will come later.

Andrew Cullen can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or acullen@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @ACullenFore.