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Voters overwhelmingly approve $96.4M Portland schools budget and validation process

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Voters overwhelmingly approve $96.4M Portland schools budget and validation process

PORTLAND — Voters approved the $96.4 million school budget for fiscal 2014 by a large majority Tuesday.

The budget passed 1,395 to 971, or by a margin of about 3-to-2.

Voters also decided to continue with the annual public budget vote by a slightly lesser majority, with 56 percent approving, 1,319 to 1,032. The budget validation referendum process is sent to voters every three years.

The budget proposes massive cuts, including eliminating 36 teaching and education technician positions, mostly at the middle school, high school and district levels. The budget will also cut 15 grant-funded positions and about 10 service positions.

Superintendent of Schools Emmanuel Caulk said in a statement immediately after the votes were tallied that the budget was "very challenging to craft."

"We deeply regret the number of layoffs that will occur and the resulting loss of many talented teachers and staff," he said. "At the same time, we recognized the need to keep property taxes affordable for Portland residents. The budget passed tonight allows us to maintain core programs and to continue down a path towards improving Portland schools."

The budget failed in only one precinct – North Deering 5-2, which was also the final polling location to report its results – by just 12 votes.

Two precincts – East End 1-1 and Stevens Avenue 5-1 – narrowly voted against continuing the validation process, with the former deciding against it by just one vote and the latter by four votes.

The budget validation vote passed more comfortably this year than in 2012, when just 13 votes allowed the process to continue for another three years.

The voter-approved budget was scaled back from an early School Board proposal, which originally was $97.9 million and included a safety net for the potential cost of $1.3 million for teacher pensions being shifted from the state. The approved budget does not anticipate that cost being passed down to the city.

Board Chairman Jaimey Caron said he was pleased by the outcome of the referendum.

"I think it's great the community came out and supported the schools," he said. "We had some tough budget choices, and there's still some uncertainty about what the state is going to do, but Portland always comes out and supports their schools. It's good to see an overwhelming majority."

Caron said he supports the decision to continue with the validation process, although it makes timing and visibility of the state budget picture more difficult.

"Adding this step to the process for communities like Portland does make it more difficult to put something meaningful in front of voters," he said. "If we did not have this step, we could have delayed work to later this year and gotten more information from state. But, if that's what the voters of Portland want, we'll do the best we can."

The process has been criticized in the past by Mayor Michael Brennan, who has said it's unnecessary and expensive. Deputy City Clerk Carolyn Dorr said the budget referendum costs the city about $13,000, mostly in labor costs.

And while the budget has been approved by voters, Caron cautioned that the process is still not quite finished. He said that as the state budget figures become more clear, the school budget may have to be revisited.

"It does feel good at this point, but decisions at the state level could throw us back into it," he said.

Voter turnout Tuesday was low: just 2,368 voters, or 4.6 percent of the city's more than 51,200 registered voters, showed up at the polls. Still, turnout was higher than the record low last year, when less than 3 percent voted.

Voters interviewed at the East End Community School generally supported the budget, but had mixed feelings about the referendum process.

Karin Roland said she voted in favor of the budget, but against continuing the validation vote.

"This is why we elect the School Board, to make budgets," she said. "If I don't like the budget, I'll vote you out of office. To have this on the ballot means that very few people make a decision on behalf of the city. ... The most motivated voters are not always the most representative."

Roland said she the staff cuts in the budget are "awful," but that she didn't think the board had a choice with what was handed down by the state.

"It's really too bad we don't have a state government that values Portland schools," she said.

Another East End voter, Alex Goan, who brought his two young daughters to the polls, said he supported the school budget, but was disinterested in the budget referendum process as a whole.

"I really love our schools," he said as he pulled a plastic wagon carrying one daughter, while the other followed closely behind. "We came out today primarily for the walk, and just happened to be walking past the school."

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