Portland council sets Sept. 4 referendum on revised school budget

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PORTLAND — The city will hold a supplemental school budget referendum Sept. 4.

The referendum approved Monday by the City Council will ask voters to accept an additional $1.9 million in state aid.

If approved, school officials said they will use the money to cover about $1.4 million in new costs for teacher retirements and to restore eight of the nearly 40 positions cut in the $96.4 million fiscal 2014 budget approved in May.

Although some councilors initially favored holding the vote on Election Day in November, School Department officials pushed for the earlier date, which they said would give them more clarity regarding the budget and hiring in the upcoming school year.

School Board Finance Chairman Justin Costa said waiting until November would have made financial management difficult.

“That’s an enormous hole for us to fill and to me that is not responsible in terms of fiscal management,” he said. “If it was $200,000, well, sure. But when we start talking about half a million dollars, it gets to be a bigger gamble.”

After some discussion between councilors and school officials in the audience, Councilor John Anton offered an amendment to schedule the vote for Nov. 5. He then voted against his amendment.

“The referendum process keeps the School Board and the council in line,” Anton said before supporting the September vote. He said he posed the amendment to focus the discussion.

Anton, who is retiring from the council, also railed against school officials for some of their reasoning at a council Finance Committee meeting last month, where they lamented a late budget vote because it would force them to manually enter data into the budget. 

“When you have a $100 million budget, don’t complain about manual entries,” he said, noting that should not be a reason to make policy decisions. “Don’t talk about it, just keep your mouth shut. That would be my advice.”

Councilor Nicholas Mavodones Jr. said he also supports a September vote.

“I still think it makes sense to insert as much predictability in this process as possible,” Mavodones said, adding that holding the vote in September will allow students to have teachers earlier in the year. “Everyday that they lose and that they don’t have a teacher or instructional support, is a day they will not get back.”

Councilor Ed Suslovic and Mayor Michael Brennan supported Anton’s amendment for a November referendum, but were in the minority. In the end, the council voted unanimously to send the supplemental budget to a September vote.

Resident Steven Scharf spoke during the public comment period and urged councilors to hold the vote in November, noting that he also would like to see the money used to reduce the tax burden, instead of rehiring staff.

He also criticized the council for holding two meetings on the same night to hasten a vote. The referendum proposal was introduced, without discussion, during a special 5:30 p.m. council session. It was discussed and decided during the council’s “regular” 7 p.m. meeting.

“The whole point of having two meetings is to let the public know what’s on the agenda so they can show up and speak to it,” he said. “You have basically usurped that process that your rules dictate and you did it without a vote.”

The council is required to hold two public readings before it schedules a vote to authorize spending more than $500, according to council rules, although state law only requires one meeting.

The city is required to provide 30-day notice before an election and then also hold it within 30 days. To accomplish that, Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta said they had to pay for a newspaper notice in advance of the council vote to meet the state requirement.

If councilors had voted against the September vote, the city would have had to retract the notice, she said.

The referendum is expected to cost about $13,000, according to the city clerk’s office.

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