Portland school budget may increase spending 1.2%

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PORTLAND — Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk on Tuesday proposed a 2016 fiscal-year school budget that includes a spending increase of nearly $1.2 million, or 1.2 percent. 

The total budget, which Caulk called “modest,” is nearly $102.8 million. Caulk presented the proposal to the School Board, which unanimously sent it to the Finance Committee for review.

If adopted, the budget would result in a 2.3 percent increase in the school portion of the city’s property tax rates, adding about $23 in taxes per $100,000 of assessed value.

That’s about the same increase as the one last year, when a scaled-down school budget of $101.6 million was approved by voters.

After the meeting, Caulk said this year’s budget “puts students first, invests in staff and is fair to taxpayers.” The proposal reflects diminishing support from the state, but would continue the work the district has done since he arrived, according to Caulk.

“When you look at the revenue, the state decreased support and that shifts the balance to the taxpayers,” he said.

During the meeting, Caulk noted that Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed state budget would cut Essential Programs and Services funding by 6.5 percent, or $920,000. Without the EPS loss, the city tax increase would have been only 1.1 percent.

If the state still paid the costs of teacher pensions, as it had until shifting them to local school districts in 2013, the tax rate would have been “zero or less.”

“The funding from the state is so unpredictable; it’s been declining since my tenure,” Caulk said.

He said he believes the district is doing “everything right” in its financial stewardship, but as state funding shrinks the budgeting process becomes “increasingly difficult.”

Personnel costs would increase 2.7 percent, or nearly $2.2 million, under next year’s budget, and would represent 79 percent of the total.

In addition to covering the cost of teacher retirement, the budget maintains current staff, class sizes and programs.

The budget calls for continued expansion of pre-kindergarten education. Spending for charter school tuition was removed from the budget, according to Caulk, in anticipation of a bill in the Legislature that would provide state funding. The budget also takes into account decreased debt service, he said.

Caulk said while there are always “difficult choices in wanting to do more” during the budget process, no single item took a major hit or gained major ground. He gave very few specifics about allocation of funding.

After review by the School Board’s Finance Committee, the budget will return to the full board for public hearings, workshops and a decision on whether to forward it to the City Council. A public referendum on the budget is scheduled on May 12. 

New school calendar

A new school calendar presented at the meeting calls for changes in the start and end times of the school day, in order to squeeze in an additional 20 minutes. Students at Deering, Portland and Casco Bay high schools will start their days half an hour later at 8:35 a.m. and finish at 3:05 p.m.

Students at Portland Arts and Technology High School will continue to start at 8 a.m. and finish at 1:30 p.m., because PATH classes include students from other school districts.

Students in the most of the city’s elementary and middle schools would see earlier start times. Lyman Moore and Lincoln middle schools will run from 8:15 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. King Middle School will run from 7:55 a.m. to 2:25 p.m., to accommodate students who live on the islands.

East End, Longfellow, Lyseth and Presumpscot elementary schools will begin at 8:35 a.m. and end at 3:05 p.m. Hall, Riverton, Ocean Avenue and Reiche elementary schools will start at 8:55 a.m. and end at 3:25 p.m. The Bayside Learning Community’s school day will run from 8:15 a.m. to 2:45 p.m.

Schools may partner with Metro

The school district is proposing to partner with the Metro bus system this fall to transport students from Portland, Deering and Casco Bay high schools.

School Board Chairwoman Sarah Thompson said the proposal is for a three-year contract, under which students would ride at a discounted fare of 75 cents. The district would pay up to $160,000 for the service, while Metro will cover anything exceeding that.

She said the proposal accommodates the new school day, as students “won’t be dependent on a regimented yellow bus schedule.” Students will also have shorter bus rides, and buses will run every 10 minutes, according to Thompson.

This doesn’t mean the yellow buses would disappear, but would better address the growing transportation needs of special-needs students, she added.

Gregory Jordan, Metro’s general manager, said more than 80 percent of students live within a quarter of a mile from at least one Metro route.

Thompson said the proposal will give high schoolers greater access to transportation for after-class activities. Students would also be able to use Metro on nights and weekends, but during the summer would have to buy their own discounted passes.

Metro is developing a new route for students, Thompson added, which should be in place before the fall so parents can try it out.

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

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Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.