Portland voters approve school budget by 2-1 margin

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PORTLAND — Voters overwhelmingly approved the city’s $102.8 million school budget on Tuesday, 653-317.

As is often the case, turnout for the referendum was low.

Just 970 residents voted, or roughly 1.5 percent of the city’s registered voters. Last year’s turnout brought out 1,492 voters.

Tuesday night’s unofficial count showed just over 67 percent of voters supported the budget, compared to nearly 33 percent who did not.

Following the final tally on Tuesday night, School Board Chairwoman Sarah Thompson said she was appreciative of those who got out to vote.

“I’m pleased the community supported our budget,” Thompson said. “We didn’t expect a large turnout, but we’re pleased with those who turned out in favor.”

By early afternoon, just over 40 people had voted at Reiche Elementary School on Brackett Street. Marianne O’Malley Sampson, the warden for the voting district, said that was on par with past years.

“I’ve been doing this for five or six years, and there’s always between 110 and 125 people (who come out to vote),” she said.

Sampson said the day began at 5:30 a.m., when she got the ballots from City Hall and brought them to Reiche. Voting began at 7 a.m. and concluded at 8 p.m. She said poll workers brought things to keep themselves busy, like puzzles.

At St. Pius Church, 492 Ocean Ave., nearly 70 people had turned out by mid-afternoon. Warden Elizabeth Cyr said that was lower than previous years.

“This year we didn’t have the morning rush,” Cyr said. “No one was lined up outside.”

Cyr said the St. Pius Church polling place typically gets a few hundred voters for for the school budget referendum.

The budget, unchanged from the one proposed in early March by Superintendent of Schools Emmanuel Caulk, is a 1.2 percent increase over current spending. It glided through every step of the School Board and City Council approval process.

It requires a 2.3 percent increase in the school portion of the city’s property tax rate, adding about $23 in taxes per $100,000 of assessed value.

The school portion combined with the proposed municipal side of the budget would add 58 cents to the current tax rate, to $20.58 per $1,000 of assessed value. The combined school and city budget, which totals over $320 million, would account for a $116 annual tax increase on a property worth $200,000.

The 2.3 percent increase is about the same as the increase voters overwhelming approved a year ago.

When Caulk first presented the budget to the School Board, he called it “modest,” in large part due to declining state aid.

The School Department lost nearly $1 million in state Essential Programs and Services funding, a nearly 6.5 percent reduction. In March, Caulk said without the EPS loss the city tax increase would have been only 1.1 percent.

Thompson had said last week that if any more revenue comes from the state, it would be used to offset the tax increase.

Caulk also had said 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 increase would have been “zero or less.”

The budget maintains current staff, class sizes and programs. Personnel costs increased by $2.2 million, or 2.7 percent.

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

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.