Portland councilors have doubts about school budget

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PORTLAND — Indications are city councilors will reduce the proposed $112 million fiscal year 2019 school budget.

The budget, approved by the city School Board on April 12, will have a City Council public hearing at 5:30 p.m. Monday, May 7, in City Hall.

The council is expected to vote on the school budget May 14; it must then be approved by voters in a referendum on June 12.

On Wednesday, May 9, the council Finance Committee, led by Councilor Nick Mavodones and staffed by Mayor Ethan Strimling and Councilor Justin Costa, will vote on both the school budget and the $247 million municipal budget presented by City Manager Jon Jennings.

At the completion of the committee’s April 26 joint meeting and hearing with the School Board, Mavodones and Costa said they felt the school budget was still too much to ask of city taxpayers.

“With the city manager’s budget, I don’t know what we will do with that,” Mavodones said.

When combined, the budgets for school operations, municipal operations and obligations to Cumberland County could increase the overall tax rate of $21.65 per $1,000 of assessed value by 97 cents.

The projected increase from $82 million to $89 million in property tax revenue for the school budget would cost the owner of a property valued at the city’s average of $240,000 an additional $168 annually.

Councilors have the final say in how much the School Department can spend, but not how it is spent.

Amending the budget presented to them by the School Board requires six votes. Following the committee meeting, Councilors Spencer Thibodeau and Kim Cook also said they felt $112 million was too much to ask, although none of the councilors have indicated a dollar amount they find acceptable.

For its part, the School Board and Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana have said they know they are asking for a lot with a budget that would increase the school side of the city tax rate by 68 cents to $11.29 per $1,000 of assessed value. The $112 million budget was reduced by $1.4 million from the first budget presented by Botana.

The budget seeks to make up $3.4 million in reduced and altered state subsidies, including a requirement the school department absorb the cost of other communities sending students to the Portland Arts & Technology High School. The city had gained $1.9 million in tuition revenues.

The School Department is also facing a $1.9 million increase in benefit costs, according to budget documents, and an increase of $1.9 million in debt service, primarily related to the city share for building what will be the Amanda C. Rowe Elementary School. The school will replace Hall Elementary School and is due to open for the 2018-19 school year.

Debt service for the $64 million in bonds to renovate and repair four city elementary schools will not become part of the school budgets for at least a year and will be budgeted in stages as bonds are purchased.

In a presentation before the hearing, School Department Budget Director Alicia Gardiner said reducing the school budget to a 4.5 percent increase over the school share, or 47 cents, could mean eliminating 25 positions, with 12 coming from city elementary schools. Keeping a budget increase to 3 percent would eliminate 44 positions, with 21 at elementary schools.

The School Department had also discussed closing schools on the city islands and reducing arts, music and language courses. All were rejected by the School Board, and Costa and Mavodones said they did not want those results either.

“When I look at this list of cuts that has been debated over the past several weeks, I don’t see anything that I would support. I don’t think there are any good ideas in that,” Costa said.

Costa and Mavodones urged the school department to look again at how it functioned in leaner times while providing many of the same services with staffing that could be as much as 50 people below current levels.

The proposed budget does add 3.47 positions, but pares down staffing at the central office for the second year in a row.

Strimling, who also supported Botana’s first budget request, asked councilors to look at the entire city budget and increases while considering the municipal government has more options for raising revenue than does the School Department.

The mayor argued the tax increases in municipal and school budgets should be measured by the entire tax rate, as opposed to how they fit into what is a 51-49 percent split, with the municipal budget requiring more tax revenue.

Cook, Costa, Mavodones and Thibodeau each said their eyes are on the total tax increase and how it affects taxpayers, as well as indications the School Department will be seeking similar increases in the next five years.

“We have to look at the overall tax rate. For me it is too high. I don’t know what number will make me happy,” Mavodones said.

Thibodeau said he expects a budget can be crafted that the department can work with at the level the councilors decide to fund.

“I think we are moving in the right direction to be sure,” he said. “There seems to be some room here and they are working through it.”

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

Portland School Superintendent Xavier Botana reviews the fiscal year 2019 school budget at a City Hall meeting April 26. Councilor Justin Costa is seated behind him.

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.