South Portland budgets suggest 3% tax hike

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Although they were prepared for the usual push and pull of budget season, some School Board members said this year’s process has been relatively easy when compared to past years. 

“This is my ninth year doing the budget … and we’ve had some very difficult budgets,” School Board member Sara Goldberg said Tuesday. But “there’s pretty much no pain in this budget at all. It’s pretty smooth, (and) that’s baffling to me.”

School Board Chairman Dick Matthews agreed.

“This is a responsible budget; I think it’s probably one of the best budgets I’ve seen in a long time,” he said. “I’m actually glad there’s no pain. It makes it a little more pleasant to be a School Board member.”

Compromise is typically the goal between the board and City Council. Early in the process, the board will present a preliminary number, or percentage increase, it wants for the upcoming fiscal year.

The council will counter with an increase it thinks is appropriate; this year most councilors agreed that a 3-3.5 percent increase would be ideal, but up to a 4 percent increase would be acceptable, Rafe Forland, School Department finance director, said Thursday. 

The council’s guidance “wasn’t (as) definitive” as it has been in years past, Forland said, “but the superintendent’s budget is in keeping with the expectations that were established. … It (is) basically in the ballpark of what they were hoping.” 

Factoring in $7,000 returned to the district from the state through General Purpose Aid, or about $600,000 more than this year, Superintendent of Schools Ken Kunin proposed a $47.8 million budget for fiscal 2017, up 3.7 percent from this year’s $46.1 million. Overall, the district will receive about $7.5 million in state aid. 

Taxpayers would cover $40.3 million of the school budget this year, which represents a tax increase of 2.7 percent, or 31 cents.

The overall tax increase on the school side is subject to change, Forland said, since the district is still waiting to hear what the health insurance rate increase will be.

City Manager Jim Gailey’s proposed municipal budget of nearly $32.6 million, which the council vetted twice this week in workshops, is up approximately $1.2 million from last year’s budget, or an increase of 3.9 percent. 

Added to the proposed school budget, taxpayers would see a tax increase of 53 cents per $1,000 in valuation. The tax rate would increase 3 percent, to $17.93 from $17.40 per $1,000 of valuation.

One of the noteworthy changes from this year’s school budget is the addition of one ed tech and one full-time teacher to accommodate the growing number of English Language Learner students and classes at South Portland High School and Mahoney and Memorial middle schools. 

Overall, the ratio of ELL students to teachers at the district’s elementary schools is 28-to-1, Assistant Superintendent Kathy Germani told board members Tuesday. 

Between Mahoney and Memorial, there are 62 students in need of ELL services. By adding an ed tech, the student-teacher ratio would decline to 21-to-1. 

This year at the high school, there are nine ELL classes, one of which is being taught by a math teacher, Germani said, and the other eight are being taught by the school’s two ELL teachers. With an additional teacher, staff could accommodate 11 classes. 

The number of students projected to need ELL services next year is virtually the same, she said, with Arabic students as the “neediest population, in terms of numbers,” Germani said. 

Kunin stressed the importance of attracting immigrants who graduate from local colleges and universities to fill some of those positions. 

“If we can get an ed tech who is bilingual (and) bicultural, that would be fabulous,” Kunin said. 

“We want to hire teachers that look like our kids,” he said. “We think that’s really important.”

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA

South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.