Slightly reduced Portland school budget goes to City Council

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PORTLAND — The School Board on April 10 approved a $101.7 million budget, paving the way for a City Council vote and, eventually, a voter referendum.

During a special meeting, the board voted 8-0 to send the budget to City Hall, where School Board Chairwoman Sarah Thompson presented the spending plan to the council on Monday night.

The budget is $586,000 less than originally proposed by Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk on March 11. The reduction is due to a decrease in anticipated health-care premiums for district employees, from 8 percent to 2.5 percent.

That reduction will also be reflected in property taxes. The original budget projected a 3.7 percent increase in the school portion of property taxes. That increase is now more than 1 percent lower, at 2.5 percent.

If accepted as written, the budget would add about $25 of taxes per $100,000 of assessed property value. For a median value home of $241,700 in Portland, the tax increase would be about $60 per year.

The budget constitutes a 3.5 percent increase over the current year’s $98.2 million spending plan.

This year’s budget process has been notably quiet, according to several members of the School Board. Thompson said the muted public response indicates the board has “gained a lot of trust” from the public over the “last eight years.”

Board member Marnie Morrione said she was initially surprised by the lack of public comment, but chalked it up to this year’s effort by the district to involve the public through a community forum and an online budget “toolkit,” and a “comprehensive plan” that articulated the board’s spending priorities.

Board member Laurie Davis, who serves as head of the Finance Committee, also noted the board’s effort to involve residents, whose feedback, she said, “inform(ed) the budget development.”

“Folks in the community commented that they gained a better understanding (of the budget process),” Davis said.

Portland resident Steven Scharf, a frequent speaker at School Board meetings, also noted the silence as the lone speaker during the public hearing.

“It has been probably the most quiet budget season,” he said.

Nonetheless, Scharf criticized the board about increasing spending.

“Enrollment is projected to be 169 less than the current year, and yet your budget is still going up,” he said. “That is not sustainable.”

Board member Justin Costa said this year’s budget reflects a stronger economy. The district had been struggling for several years after the recession, he said, but it’s in a better spot now.

“This budget really marks a turning point for us,” Costa said. “Things have stabilized.”

Thompson said the budget marks a conservative increase in spending.

“We’re maintaining the status quo,” she said, “with some small steps forward.”

After Thompson’s presentation to the City Council , the budget will move on to the city’s Finance Committee, where it will be discussed at 6 p.m. Thursday, April 17, in City Hall.

The City Council will then hold a public hearing on the budget April 28. The council will likely vote on the budget during its May 5 meeting. A voter referendum on the budget will be held Tuesday, May 13.

Ben McCanna can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or Follow him on Twitter: @BenMcCanna.

Sidebar Elements

Portland school year extended by 2 days

PORTLAND — A long, snowy winter translates into a slightly longer school year for students at Portland Public Schools.

The School Board on Tuesday voted unanimously to set June 20 as the final day of classes, assuming there are no more cancellations. The original date had been June 18.

Inclement weather caused the district to cancel classes on five days this school year.

Tuesday’s revision to the calendar results in 177 school days for students. The original calendar called for 180 days. The state requires 175.

In the previous two school years, there were three snow days per year.

At the same meeting, the School Board set the calendar for the next school year. Classes will start Sept. 2, the day after Labor Day. Winter break is set for Dec. 24 through Jan. 2, 2015.

— Ben McCanna