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Portland school officials seek August vote on revised budget

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Portland school officials seek August vote on revised budget

PORTLAND — Extra state aid is leading school officials to urge the City Council schedule a public referendum in early August on a revised school budget that could restore some jobs.

The School Board was scheduled to vote Tuesday night on whether to send the supplemental school budget to the council. The plan includes an extra $520,000 from passage of the state budget, which gives schools about $29 million in aid.

The extra $1.9 million for the School Department – from $13.9 million to $15.8 million – could be used to hire an elementary school assistant principal, support specialists, high school teachers and education technicians that were cut after voters approved the existing fiscal 2014 budget in May, board Chairman Jaimey Caron said.

"The plan is to restore some of the deep cuts that were included in the original budget," Caron said. "It was a very deep cut this year. We heard a lot from staff and parents that perhaps the cuts were too deep, and now this gives us the to chance to restore some of those critical positions."

The district will actually receive about $1.9 million in additional state subsidy, but has to pay about $1.37 million in new costs this year for teacher retirements and as much as $20,000 in tuition for two additional students attending charter schools, according to a memo from Superintendent of Schools Emmanuel Caulk and Chief Financial Officer Michael Wilson.

The number of students attending charter schools from Portland could increase from seven to nine and bring the total cost to the district to about $211,000.

In the memo, the administrators recommend:

• $90,000 of the aid to restore assistant principal hours at Hall, Longfellow and Ocean Avenue Elementary schools.

• $120,000 to increase literary instruction for students to one full-time position at each middle school.

• $120,000 for teaching positions in technology at Deering High School, world language at Casco Bay High School and visual arts at Portland High School.

• And another $120,000 to restore four education technician positions.

Caron said the board is pushing to get the budget in front of voters before the school year begins, so the restored staff can be working and to allow administrators to better track the budget.

But the council could push the referendum to the general election in November to avoid the cost of holding two elections. School budget elections cost about $13,000, City Clerk Kathrine Jones said.

There will not be a property tax increase if voters approve the increased budget. Rejecting the spending would reduce taxes, but also force the board to make additional job and program cuts, Caron said, something that could be exacerbated by a November referendum.

"If the voters said no in November, the problem is that we're a few months into the year, which means that it will be much more difficult to get the cuts we need to pay the tax contributions," he said, noting that staff contracts stipulate 90- or 120-day layoff notices.

State law requires the supplemental budget to have voter approval. A bill that would have allowed school districts to spend additional money without voter approval failed in the Legislature this year.

Justin Costa, the board's finance chairman, said it's imperative that the city move quickly to get the budget to a public vote.

"It has become come very clear to us on the management side that this leaves us exposed and not properly able to monitor the budget, which is obviously completely unacceptable," Costa said. 

He said he believes the council will support moving forward quickly after the School Board is able to communicate the urgency of getting a decision from voters. Councilors are expected to discuss the referendum at a Finance Committee meeting on Thursday night.

This will be the first time since the public budget validation process began about six years ago that voters will be asked to approve a revised school budget. Costa said it could have been avoided, if not for dysfunction at the state level.

"It speaks to the unfortunate way in which our state is operating right now," he said. "Obviously we appreciate (the extra aid) and our schools will be better off from the influx, but this is not a good way to do a budget. We've been through multiple iterations of cuts, now we're trying to undo those cuts, bring people back, and that's not a good or efficient way to do things."

The budget the board originally sent to the City council did not include the extra costs for teacher retirement. But the council urged caution and asked the board to plan for the additional costs.

The Legislature eventually passed the state budget over Gov. Paul LePage's veto, and included the extra subsidy to offset some of the retirement cost shift.

"We made our reccomendation and it wasn't taken," Costa said, referring to the original proposal. "Our job now is to move forward in the most productive way."

Voters did not enthusiastically rush to the polls for the first school budget referendum in May: just 2,368 of the city's 51,200 registered voters, or 4.6 percent, turned out, according to the clerk's office.

The budget passed 1,395 to 971.

Will Graff can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or wgraff@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @W_C_Graff.