Portland school chief proposes 3.3% budget hike

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PORTLAND — A proposed $107 million school budget for the 2018 fiscal year would add 67 cents to the tax rate, Superintendent Xavier Botana told the School Board Tuesday.

The presentation of the superintendent’s budget is the first step in the process of sending a school spending package to voters in early May. In addition to needing approval from the School Board, the budget also requires the approval of the City Council before going out to referendum.

Botana said the budget, which represents a 3.3 percent increase in spending from the current $103.6 million, is designed to meet the goals of the School Department’s new comprehensive plan, which focuses on achievement and the “whole” student.

Under Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed state budget, the Portland School Department could lose more than $2 million in aid to education funding. So, in an attempt to keep the tax increase to a minimum, Botana said he is proposing strategic cuts in spending that total about $1.2 million.

Even with those reductions, however, school operating costs will likely require a tax rate increase. But the total tax impact will depend on the bottom-line budget the City Council approves this spring.

Residents will get their first opportunity to speak on the budget at a Finance Committee public hearing and workshop, scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 14, at the School Department central office,  353 Cumberland Ave.

The School Board is expected to hold a first reading of the budget on March 21 and to vote on a final spending package to send to the City Council on April 4. A final vote by councilors is expected May 1, with the citywide referendum scheduled for May 9 before the new budget goes into effect July 1.

Overall, Botana said his budget proposal is designed to retain “core programming,” including ensuring optimal class sizes and education options, such as advanced high school coursework and world languages classes, while also providing “comprehensive extracurricular options.”

The budget priorities include enhanced English Language Learner support, math coaching in the lower grades, and enhanced parent engagement and adult education services, along with professional learning opportunities for teachers.

And while Botana is recommending some staffing cuts, most of the increase in spending is due to personnel costs that include contracted salary and benefit increases. And, with reduced state aid to education, more of the costs for running the schools are falling on taxpayers, Botana said.

In all, he said, between fiscal years 2016 and 2018, the amount of school funding to the district from the state has dropped by $3.4 million, or 20 percent.

That’s why Botana said he is working with the city’s legislative delegation to “ensure that the final (state) budget is more responsive to the needs of our community” in terms of education spending.

Botana joined the School Department last summer; this is his first budget proposal. Throughout the process of creating the proposed budget, he said, he’s been “impressed with the quality of the educational options available to our students.”

“They have access to amazing staff, excellent programming and great extended learning opportunities,” Botana said, which “reflects the desire of our community to provide a high-quality learning environment for our children.”

There was no comment from School Board members on the proposed spending package Tuesday, only a unanimous vote to refer it to the Finance Committee for further review.

In addition to the school budget referendum in May, the School Department and city leaders are also planning to hold a June vote on a possible $64 million bond to significantly upgrade Longfellow, Lyseth, Presumpscot and Reiche elementary schools.

The full City Council is expected to hold a first reading of the school improvement bond on Monday, March 20, at 5:30 p.m.

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