Portland School Board gives initial OK to revised, nearly $105M budget

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PORTLAND — The School Board gave preliminary approval Tuesday to a $104.8 million budget for fiscal year 2018, which begins July 1.

A final vote is expected April 11.

The spending package sent to the board by the Finance Committee includes $2.2 million in cuts from Superintendent Xavier Botana’s original budget proposal, which he presented in early March.

The Finance Committee voted 2-1 last week on the newly revised budget figures, which would lead to a tax increase of 39 cents per $1,000 of valuation and bring the tax impact on the school side down to 2.5 percent, as requested by the City Council’s Finance Committee.

In addition to a first reading on the proposed 2018 budget, the School Board also passed a measure that would reinstate a $1.15 million capital project to build  a new entrance for Casco Bay High School.

This project was eliminated from the School Department’s initial capital budget by City Manager Jon Jennings.

But according to Botana, after juggling some other capital expenditures – including moving some to fiscal year 2019 – the new entrance and renovated great room project at CBHS could move forward without spending more than the $2.5 million in capital projects Jennings recommended to the council.

There was no discussion by the board at Tuesday’s meeting on either the proposed school budget or the Casco Bay High project, and only two people spoke at a public hearing the School Board held prior to its regular meeting.

One person who spoke was in favor of further cuts to the budget, while the other asked board members to “push back” against pressure to reduce school spending when there are “clear needs” that aren’t being met.

Following the regular School Board meeting, members were set to hold an impromptu workshop on the budget, during which Botana said he and his administrative team would answer questions from board members.

While there was no discussion during the regular meeting, it was clear that some members of the School Board are uncomfortable with the cuts being recommended by the Finance Committee, particularly since there is no investment being made under the new comprehensive plan for the district.

In addition, the new budget calls for a 10 percent reduction in allocations for each city school. It also calls for spending cuts in athletic programs, as well as the loss of several teaching positions and the technology coordinators at the city’s middle schools.

“This is a challenging budget year for the Portland Public Schools,” Botana said in a press release prior to Tuesday’s meeting. “Our costs have gone up while our share of state education aid has gone down.”

Botana also said he was disappointed by “the setbacks to our work to implement the comprehensive plan.”

But, overall, he said, “The reductions we’ve come up with are reasonable ones, chosen to have as little direct impact on students as possible.” Botana also called the budget proposal “a modest one that continues to allow us to provide quality services to our students.”

Regarding the move to reinstate funding for a new entrance at Casco Bay High School, Botana told the board that when the school was asked to nearly double its enrollment five years ago, a master plan was created to help the facility grow with its growing population.

“To date,” he said, “very few of those improvements have been made.”

In a memo to the School Board, Derek Pierce, principal at Casco Bay High School, said the new entrance and great room project “is about addressing a crucial need that has never been appropriately addressed.”

While Pierce acknowledged the School Department is asking the state to fund a new building for the high school and the Portland Arts and Technology High School in this year’s application for school construction aid, he also said it could be at least “a decade before (there’s) any ribbon-cutting.” 

“The 1,500 families or so we will be serving over the next decade deserve a complete school,” Pierce argued.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KirishCollins.