Portland School Board sends $105M budget to City Council

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PORTLAND — The School Board approved a $105 million budget Monday for fiscal year 2018.

The vote was 7-2, with Laurie Davis and Holly Seeliger opposed.

The spending package now goes to the City Council for its review and will be sent to voters in a city-wide referendum, scheduled for June 13.

Although the majority of the board ended up voting in favor of the budget, there was much reluctance to support an allocation that was reduced by nearly $4 million from Superintendent Xavier Botana’s original recommendation.

All the board members bemoaned the fact that the budget does not include any investment in the district’s new comprehensive plan and that it also calls for the reduction of nearly 24 jobs, several of them teaching positions.

The cuts were required to meet a City Council goal of no more than a 2.5 percent increase in school spending from the current budget of $103.6 million.

In addition to voting on the budget, the School Board also unanimously approved sending an application to the state for school construction aid that would include all four elementary schools, which are the subject of a proposed $64 million bond question.

Those schools are Longfellow, Lyseth, Presumpscot and Reiche.

The construction aid application will also include the Portland Arts and Technology High School and Casco Bay High School, so that Portland will be seeking state assistance in funding capital improvements for a total of six schools.

Botana said if voters end up approving a bond measure for all four, or even two elementary schools this fall, those schools could be removed from the application for construction assistance.

He said this would be the fourth time Portland has sought funding from the state for upgrades to the four elementary schools and said it would be the summer of 2018 before the school district knows whether any of its schools are named to the state’s priority list for funding.

And, Botana said, even if one or more schools are approved for state aid, it would be another two to three years before any construction would likely take place.

In terms of the budget, the initial amount set for approval Monday was $104.8 million, but Botana said adding another $200,000 to cover the costs for crossing guards was requested by the City Council’s Finance Committee.

The city currently picks up the costs for the crossing guard service, but asked the schools to put that funding into its new fiscal year budget, at least as a place holder, while it decides whether  the city should continue to hire and manage the crossing guards or whether that responsibility should fall to the School Department.

The budget as adopted also assumes the schools will receive $1 million more in state aid to education than is currently included in Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed state budget.

Botana said he believes the Legislature has “little appetite” to support the governor’s school funding proposal.

Stephanie Hatzenbuehler, chairwoman of the School Board’s Finance Committee, called this budget cycle a “brutal” one; a sentiment that was echoed by several other members of the board.

Davis said putting the budget together always represents “a challenging set of choices,” but said she simply could not support the choices made with the spending package as proposed.

She also argued that the schools will have to do some deep thinking in the next few years about “how we do education and how we could be doing it really differently in order to remain affordable.”

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