Portland City Council pares school budget ahead of June 12 referendum

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PORTLAND — Voters will decide June 12 on a $110 million school budget after the City Council on Monday reduced the fiscal year 2019 spending request.

In a nearly four-hour meeting, councilors by a 7-2 vote agreed to reduce the budget submitted by the School Board by $1.12 million. Mayor Ethan Strimling and Councilor Pious Ali opposed the amendment.

The School Board must now decide how the money will be allocated.

The council will also hold a public hearing and vote on May 21 on the fiscal year $247 million municipal budget proposed by City Manager Jon Jennings. If passed as written, it would add 30 cents to the current property tax rate of $21.65 per $1,000 of assessed value.

Strimling was the sole opponent of the main order moving the budget to the mandated referendum, which came after the rest of the council rejected Ali’s motion to only cut the school budget by $600,000.

The $110 million still represents a 4.5 percent increase over the current budget, but is now about $3 million below what School Superintendent Xavier Botana originally sought in February.

If passed by voters, the budget would add 53 cents to the property tax rate. The council action reduced that tax increase by 15 cents.

Councilors are empowered to set the total amount, but have no line-item authority over school spending. Still, the reduction in spending next year came after Councilor Justin Costa outlined his suggestions for how the budget could be trimmed in ways that would avert widespread reductions in staffing or increases in class sizes at elementary schools.

Costa, a former School Board member, suggested postponing a proposal to add an assistant principal at Reiche Elementary School; not adding grant-funded social workers to the general budget; holding off on adding staff at Portland Adult Education to the general budget, and eliminating a two-day training conference Botana has said would help move teachers toward integrating the proficiency-based learning now needed for high school diplomas.

While conceding councilors could have provided better guidance at the beginning of the budget process, Costa also said his suggestions came because School Board members presented alternatives that no one could support.

“My intent was never to lay out a specific set of things people had to do,” Costa said. “I am not offended in the least if the School Department does not take any of my suggestions.”

In about 90 minutes of testimony in a public hearing, none of Costa’s suggestions were viewed favorably. Botana, School Board members, teaching staff and parents said the $112 million sought by the School Department was a bare-bones attempt to meet increases in debt service, salaries and benefits, while countering cuts in state Department of Education subsidies amounting to $3.5 million.

Costa’s suggested $100,000 reduction in the item line for supplies rankled Victoria Parker of the Ocean Avenue Elementary PTO.

“We are constantly getting hit with costs and supplying teachers with their products,” Parker said.

Noting councilors in two hearings have heard strong support for the $112 million budget, or even the original one presented by Botana, they again were asked to consider cost versus value.

“I have spent a career making the tough budget decisions you are making tonight … what I would urge you to believe in is education,” West Street resident Will Kilbreath said.

Budget referendums in Portland have had typically low turnouts, with the near 4,000 ballots cast last year the all-time high.

Should voters reject the budget, the School Board must draft a new one that will be reviewed and possibly amended by councilors before a second referendum.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.