Public urges Portland City Council to preserve school budget

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PORTLAND — As City Councilors head to a decision on school funding, the proposed $112 million education budget for fiscal year 2019 received overwhelming public support Monday.

“I don’t believe it is in our community’s best interest to cut the budget at Portland schools,” Emily Alpers told councilors in a public hearing that lasted more than two hours at City Hall.

Alpers, a parent of two children at Riverton Elementary School and a member of the school’s PTO, said she feared reductions to the budget due for a Monday, May 14 City Council vote would cost the school two teachers and increase class sizes. Both would be detrimental to learning in a school with a significant enrollment of low-income students from immigrant families, she said.

Before the council votes, the budget approved by the School Board April 12 will be reviewed again Wednesday, May 9, by the City Council Finance Committee, led by Councilor Nick Mavodones.

On Tuesday, School Board members met in a workshop to clarify where and how additional funding cuts would affect the School Department.

Mavodones is joined by Mayor Ethan Strimling and Councilor Justin Costa on the Finance Committee, which will forward recommendations on the budget to the full council.

Strimling has been a strong supporter of the school budget, including the first proposal of $113 million by School Superintendent Xavier Botana that was eventually reduced by $1.4 million before the School Board voted for it last month.

Mavodones and Costa, who have both served on the School Board, have said the $112 million is too much to ask of city taxpayers. If passed by the council and at the June 12 referendum as written, the education budget would add 68 cents to the present city tax rate of $21.65 per $1,000 of assessed value.

On a property valued at $240,000, the increase would be $168 per year, or $14 per month.

Councilors can amend the amount funding the budget with six votes, and Councilors Spencer Thibodeau, Kim Cook and Jill Duson have all said the proposed amount is too much, although they are waiting to see what is forwarded from the Finance Committee.

Should the council reduce the amount, Strimling said it is his understanding from discussions with city Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta the budget would then return to the School Board. Members would amend the amounts comprising the 11 “cost centers” voted on at referendum before the council would vote anew on the budget.

In the public hearing, which followed a presentation by Botana outlining the financial crunch the School Department faces because of changes to the state Department of Education funding formulas costing at least $3.5 million, the value of good education far outweighed the potential worry of property tax increases.

“We are a booming liberal city looking to lay off teachers and diminish curriculum, how did we get here?” asked John Thibodeau, a Clinton Street resident who does not have children in city schools. Thibodeau has also served on the Protect Our Neighborhood Schools Steering Committee.

The proposed education budget requires an increase in property tax revenue from $82 million to $89 million, while school funding relies more heavily on tax revenue than the municipal budget.

During Finance Committee discussions, Cook asked Botana and school Finance Director Alicia Gardiner if some revenue could be recaptured by charging higher fees for nonresidents using Portland Adult Education services, including English learning classes.

A major loss in the proposed budget is the $1.9 million in tuition charged to nonresident students attending Portland Arts & Technology High School. That revenue was rolled into the state subsidy formula.

In discussing how additional cuts could be made to the education budget, school department officials have looked at eliminating 25 staff positions, closing island schools, reducing middle school offerings in the arts and physical education and eliminating foreign language classes for elementary school students.

None of those choices have been palatable to School Board members or councilors, and even less so to parents, teachers and principals who spoke Monday. The larger point emphasized was the budget as proposed is needed to ensure education continues on a forward path.

“Your job right now is sending a message of what our priorities will be and are,” School Board member Marnie Morrione said as the hearing concluded.

Noting she was speaking for herself and not the School Board, she said the proposed budget was the best she had seen in her 10 years on the board for its comprehensive approach.

“How you decide to vote is sending a message to our community,” Morrione said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

St. John Street resident and King Middle School teacher Robert Moldaver leads off Monday’s public hearing on the $112 million school budget in Portland City Hall.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.