School supporters plead for tax hike in South Portland

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Proponents on Wednesday urged the City Council to support tax increases to fund next year’s city and school budgets.

The show of support came during a public hearing where officials proposed a fiscal 2012 operating budget of $69.2 million, a $2 million increase over current spending.

That budget, which includes county spending and a more than $1 million surcharge to fund the high school bond, would increase property taxes by 2.74 percent, adding an estimated 43 cents to the city’s mil rate of $15.70.

Parents – many wearing bright green stickers with “schools” written on them – filled council chambers in support of the budget approved Monday night by the School Board.

The nearly $34.1 million school budget accounts for two-thirds of all city spending and would require a 1 percent increase in property taxes.

The school budget does not include a proposal to institute activity fees and restores several positions originally proposed for elimination, including two library clerks, two ed techs and a guidance counselor/social worker.

However, the budget would eliminate about a dozen positions, including seven custodial jobs, six of which are vacant, and some stipends.

Superintendent of Schools Suzanne Godin said the schools have not sought a tax increase for two years and have lost about 50 positions in recent years.

“We’re at a point where we are significantly impacting student learning,” Godin said.

Speakers, several of whom advocated for the high school bond last year, argued councilors should accept the school budget, even though it defies their directive for a School Department spending plan that does not increase taxes. 

Many argued a 1 percent increase would actually be a loss for the schools, since operating costs, such as utilities and salaries, are growing at a faster rate.

“I’d support (a) 2 percent (increase),” resident Ross Little said. “I’d support 3 percent.”

Parent Dara Saffer said the city should not view the schools as a business. Education provides the foundation for kids to be productive adults, she said.

“It’s not a factory and if you keep cutting costs … you get to a point where you’re not educating people anymore,” Saffer said. “It’s not like you’re making cookies and they’re not going to taste quite as good. You’re talking about people’s lives.”

Parent Carol Zechman argued that the recession that has affected many people is nearly over, and the city needs to begin investing in its schools again.

“In truth the economic recovery is happening,” Zechman said. “And many of us were never affected by the economic downturn.”

Resident Al DiMillo, however, continued to raise concerns over the surpluses that have been produced in the last half dozen years.

DiMillo said the schools have over-collected more than $1 million annually in recent years, and asked councilors why they would trust the school’s budget given that track record.

“It’s shameful,” he said. “You’re collecting taxes and not spending them on the schools.”

DiMillo, however, was the only speaker with that concern.

Resident Jeff Selser said he would rather the schools produce surpluses than deficits – a position echoed by some councilors. City services, including trash collection, are some of the best around, he said, but they come at a cost.

“In Cape Elizabeth, which is perceived to be a much more swanky zip code, they have to put their trash in their car and drive it around and dump it somewhere,” Selser said. “In South Portland , we’re civilized. We have our trash collected for us.”

Most councilors did not immediately indicate whether they would support the school budget, but some seemed open to the increase. They will meet with the School Board on April 25 to discuss the budget.

City Manager Jim Gailey said the council is tentatively scheduled to vote on the school budget on May 3, which would clear the way for a May 10 public budget referendum.

The $28 million municipal budget, meanwhile, elicited few comments. Councilors continue to work on that spending plan, which would increase property taxes by 2.5 percent.

The municipal budget includes $30,000 for a local circuit-breaker program designed to provide some property-tax relief to citizens 70 and older who have lived and paid taxes in the city for at least 10 years.

Randy Billings can be reched a 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings.