Portland School Board panel pares budget request by $1.4M

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PORTLAND — The School Board this week gets its first look at a revised fiscal year 2019 budget of nearly $112 million, which represents a 7.5 percent increase in spending.

The board’s Finance Committee approved the proposal in a 3-0 vote last week, with Laurie Davis absent. The full board was scheduled to hold a first reading on Tuesday, after The Forecaster’s deadline.

The revised budget shaves $1.4 million off Superintendent Xavier Botana’s initial request, and would add $192 to the annual tax bill of the average home in Portland, which is $46 less than the anticipated tax hike under Botana’s original proposal.

The majority of the $1.4 million reduction approved by the Finance Committee at its March 30 meeting represents undisclosed personnel cuts in administrative positions at the central office, according to Jenna Vendil, the committee chairwoman.

The other most significant cut was $186,000 for English Language Learner education technicians. The School Department also feels it will see some savings in its health insurance costs, and an additional $65,000 was taken out of the facilities budget line.

The Finance Committee ended up rejecting a series of other proposals that would have reduced the budget by a total of $3.8 million.

Those cuts would have impacted world languages and class sizes at the elementary schools; elective courses at the middle school level, and have led to the elimination of school resource officer positions at Portland and Deering high schools.

The most controversial proposal was closure of the city’s two island schools, one on Peaks and the other on Cliff. However, that idea never got off the ground and was rejected by Finance Committee members.

The School Board is expected to pass the recommended Finance Committee budget on Tuesday. That meeting will be followed by a joint meeting with the City Council Finance Committee at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, April 5.

A public hearing and final school budget vote will be held at 7 p.m. April 12. After that the budget goes to the City Council for review. The public will have the final say on the school spending package in a validation referendum later this spring.

The council can require further reductions in spending, but several speakers at last week’s School Board Finance Committee, including Mayor Ethan Strimling, said they hope councilors will not take that step.

Strimling praised the committee for its “courage in standing up and saying, ‘our kids and our schools have got to come first.’ I will make sure that on (the city side) we also make decisions based on what’s best for the kids.”

The mayor, who is a member of the council Finance Committee, told School Board members they did “some good work in protecting some of the most important parts of the (school budget).”

“I want the city to have the best schools in the state and you cannot do that by cutting and going backwards,” he said. “You’re asking for a $6 million investment in our schools and that’s smart.”

Sue Olafsen, president of the Portland Education Association, also praised the committee for “putting education and student safety first” by “supporting so much of the superintendent’s original budget.”

“It’s not easy to stand up for public education with state cuts and a city calling for minimal tax increases,” Olafsen said. “I appreciate your courage, but there’s still a lot to be done, (including) the need to educate voters.”

She said the city is facing “difficult conversations about what level of investment is needed to maintain quality schools we can be proud of,” a sentiment that was echoed by several speakers and Finance Committee members.

Longtime School Board member Sarah Thompson this week said she’s hopeful city councilors will see “that there was a good-faith effort” to minimize the impact on taxes, even though the School Department is facing a $3.5 million reduction in state aid to education.

She also said she hopes councilors will not “just blindly pick an arbitrary number” when it comes to the amount of school funding they’re willing to support.

“I hope they’ll be willing to look at what we want education to look like,” Thompson said. “This is not a scare tactic, but if we reduce spending (any further), it would mean serious programming cuts.”

She argued that the School Department is facing a “revenue issue, not a spending issue.”

Thompson said she believes a majority of School Board members will support the Finance Committee’s recommended budget.

However, Davis said this week that “the budget needs more work,” adding that “I’m not satisfied with where we are” in terms of spending. “We’re not where we need to be.”

Davis is concerned about the “significant tax burden” the proposed school budget represents and said that while opposition to the spending package is not organized, “it’s definitely out there.”

“I’m hearing from a lot of constituents who are very worried” about the tax increase, Davis said. If taxes go too high, she said, “it will be difficult to maintain our strong, vibrant and diverse community.”

Davis said the school budget cannot be viewed in a vacuum and that “we have to look at (the school and municipal budget) as a whole. There are lots of demands on the overall budget and we need to find a middle ground. Great schools are not the only thing that people look at when choosing where to live.”

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