PORTLAND — After a sometimes emotional, contentious public hearing, the City Council on Monday approved the fiscal-year 2014 school budget and sent it to a voter referendum next Tuesday, May 14.
The $96.4 million budget calls for eliminating as many as 49 positions, and is based on raising the portion of property taxes that fund the schools by 3 percent, from $9.57 to $9.86 per $1,000 of valuation.
The budget is scaled back from a $97.9 million plan the School Board recommended to the council last week. But while the board’s recommendation anticipated the effect of cost shifts proposed by Gov. Paul LePage, the new budget does not.
Under LePage’s proposal, the city would have to pick up $1.3 million in costs for teacher pensions previously paid by the state.
The city’s proposed $216 million municipal budget, presented last month and now under review by the council’s Finance Committee, assumes that the city will not have to pick up about $10 million cost shifts proposed by LePage.
To recommend school and municipal budgets based on such different assumptions would be intellectually dishonest, the committee chairman, Councilor John Anton, said. He cast the dissenting vote in the 7-1 decision.
He said he could not support the budget with his vote because it would raise property taxes while cutting jobs within the schools.
“These things don’t add up to me,” Anton said.
The job cuts drew harsh comments from the large audience attending the meeting. Several members of the Portland Education Association, the city teachers union, defended the union’s refusal to renegotiate its contract as part of the budgeting process.
PEA President Kathleen Casasa said that under the current contract, teachers have agreed to work four extra days per year while skipping planned salary increases until this year.
“We have done our part, but we have not been recognized,” she said. “The cost of a free public education is the responsibility of the community, not (school) employees.”
Parents also pleaded with the council not to adopt a budget that could endanger the quality of education students receive.
“I have no problem paying more,” said a mother from North Deering, who urged councilors to “relook at each and every line item” before cutting jobs or services.
But Anton noted that the council doesn’t have line-item authority over the school budget, only the power to make decisions about the bottom line. He and Councilor John Coyne also said that a greater property tax increase would have deep consequences for residents on fixed incomes.
The vote also comes after the Department of Education’s announcement of the first statewide report card for schools, which produced few surprises and in general showed wealthy schools out-performing poor schools in state achievement testing.
The grades, which measure proficiency and growth, were distributed using a bell curve, so the same number of schools received F grades as A grades, and there was a high concentration of C grades.
In general, schools with high percentages of students eligible for the free or reduced lunch program – a common indicator of a community’s socioeconomic status – had lower grades than schools that have fewer students eligible for the program.
Two schools that received F grades – East End Community School and Hall Elementary School – are on relative opposite ends of the lunch program spectrum for Portland schools, although still have far more students eligible than area suburban schools.
The East End school has about three-quarters of its students eligible for the program, while the Hall school has less than 40 percent, according to the Maine Department of Education.
Presumpscot Elementary School Principal Cynthia Loring said the report cards don’t provide any meaningful understanding of how schools are teaching.
“I think it’s an unfair and absurd way to go about it,” she said. Presumpscot was on the low end of the C grade spectrum and has about 76 percent of its students eligible for free or reduced lunch, the highest rate in the district.
“For me it’s more of creating a system of sorting and selecting of schools, instead of bringing schools together to celebrate the growth they’re making,” Loring said. “This system does not provide that opportunity.”
Along with socioeconomic drivers, city schools also have much more cultural diversity than suburban areas, she said.
At Presumpscot, 40 percent of the students are learning English, Loring said, similar to other city schools, which makes standardized testing that measures proficiency in reading English troublesome.
“When you use one standardize test that determines what the rating is, it doesn’t take into account the population,” Loring said. “When you’re just learning the vocabulary and learning reading and writing, it’s reflected in the standardize test. It’s a very different demographic from suburban neighbors.”
At the high school level, Casco Bay High School received a B, while Deering and Portland high schools received D grades. Both of the latter schools have more than 50 percent of students eligible for the free or reduced-cost lunches.
And while the state is still wrestling with school subsidies, it’s unclear how the school grades will impact funding.
The School Board was scheduled to discuss the council’s vote Tuesday, to decide whether it agrees with the revised numbers.
Board Chairman Jaimey Caron said the council-approved budget takes a more optimistic view than what the board previously endorsed, but still doesn’t force any programmatic changes.
“It’s really about how you handle uncertainty at the state level,” he said, noting that his position is that it is better to work with city councilors than try to outguess the state. “As the state comes into a clear budget, the council have expressed their willingness to help with any problems that occur and I have faith that they will.”
Mayor Michael Brennan urged voters to approve the budget on May 14, and also to reject the “convoluted, unnecessary, and expensive” school budget referendum process, which will be up for review in a separate question.
“But ultimately, regardless of what happens in Augusta or Washington, D.C., we will make this work,” Brennan said.