Portland council accepts school budget with 2.5% tax hike
PORTLAND — City residents have one more opportunity to weigh in on the $101.6 million fiscal year 2015 education budget.
The City Council will hear public comment and take a final vote at its Monday, May 5 meeting, after the budget was accepted in its first council reading Monday night.
“We feel strongly this is a good budget and recommend it unanimously,” Councilor Nick Mavodones, chairman of the council Finance Committee, said. The committee voted April 24.
While not empowered to decide budget line items, the City Council does ultimately decide what will be spent on education before the budget faces a referendum.
The school budget referendum will be held from 7 a.m.-8 p.m. on Tuesday, May 13.
The proposed budget was reduced by about $600,000 from the introductory budget presented by Superintendent of Schools Emmanuel Caulk on March 11, but the $77.5 million needed in property tax revenue would boost the city tax rate by 2.5 percent, or almost 25 cents.
The current education budget is funded with $9.86 of the city tax rate of $19.41 per $1,000 of assessed value. The impact of the proposed increase would be almost $63 annually on a home valued at $250,000.
In a workshop preceding the council meeting, School Department Chief Financial Officer Michael Wilson said lower-than-anticipated health insurance premiums are the primary reason for the reduced spending request: an expected 8 percent increase came in at 2.5 percent.
At the same time, expected revenues took a nearly $300,000 hit when state subsidy came in lowered than expected. Caulk said the loss of funds will be seen mostly in the maintenance budget.
Caulk said he hopes to expand the city pre-kindergarten program, although its federal grant funding is expiring. His budget presentation shows the department will spend $350,000 to sustain the program next year.
Other goals include ensuring students entering middle and high school are fully prepared by the end of fifth and eighth grades, and ensuring all students are reading at or above grade level by third grade.
What Caulk called "investments" were seen as unsustainable by High Street resident Steven Scharf, one of two people to comment publicly on Monday.
“I don't think (Caulk) even said what the total budget is,” Scharf said, adding a projected reduced enrollment of 169 students should not produce a budget increase.
Scharf also accused the School Department of burying the budget costs associated with buying the former Goodwill building on Cumberland Avenue for use as a new headquarters, and said space gained by the department should mean it will not have to build any new schools.
Both Scharf and Holm Avenue resident Robert Hains criticized the specific council orders outlining school spending, presented in a format required by the state school district reorganization law passed by the Legislature in 2007.
Hains suggested the referendum vote does not follow a legal format because the wording asks voters to approve the council decision, without ever listing what will be spent. He also criticized the reductions in maintenance spending and what he called unsustainably small goals for class sizes.
“Perhaps we are trying to run a private school instead of a public high school,” Hains said.