South Portland school budget proposes 4% tax hike

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Superintendent of Schools Ken Kunin presented a fiscal 2019 budget Monday that would raise taxes by nearly 4 percent – even after more than $400,000 in proposed staff positions were left unfunded.

Kunin, in an email about his $50 million budget proposal, said it was been a challenging document to develop. The superintendent said non-tax revenues are expected to be down more than 10 percent due to a reduction in state subsidy. The School Department is expecting a potential $800,000 shortfall in state aid this year, and is planning to receive $6.1 million in state subsidy.

Kunin explained in an earlier interview that the state allocation is based on two factors: property valuation and enrollment. The schools had 19 percent of the total cost of education paid for by the state last year. This year, the city is facing a 3 percent drop in aid, which is significant, he said.

The superintendent said the loss of state aid will in part be offset because the state, in a change to the way vocational education is funded, will pay South Portland’s $370,000 share of funding for the regional Portland Arts and Technology High School.

An increase in expenses has been held to 1.7 percent, but due to the reduction in revenue, the result is a proposed 3.9 percent increase in the tax rate, which, according to Kunin, is much higher than the School Department would like.

The budget is up 1.7 percent from this year’s $49.2 million, and the amount to be raised by taxes is $42 million. Another $7 million would come from the department’s fund balance and sources like athletic sponsorships and tuition payments.

Taxes are expected to increase $1.6 million to cover the budget, according to Kunin’s estimates, or a 3.9 percent increase.

Staff positions to be eliminated include a middle school classroom teacher, an assistant athletic director, a middle school resource officer, and two educational technician positions at the elementary school.

Kunin said in a meeting with city councilors earlier this year that South Portland will look at several key points to form the fiscal year 2019 school budget, including the increase in special education needs, maintaining current staffing levels, and renovations needed at two elementary schools.

Regular instruction costs are up the most, at 6.5 percent, followed by an increase in special education costs, up 4.1 percent.

Regular instruction costs make up 41 percent of the budget, with special education absorbing 19 percent. Debt service and facilities maintenance each make up about 9 percent of the pie, followed by student and staff support.

Kunin said it is important to balance students’ best interests with what is fiscally responsible.

He estimated that maintaining staff and service levels could require an additional $1.2 million in spending to meet contractual obligations for staff salary and benefits, which make up 80 percent of total school expenses. He said most of the action in constructing the budget is in analyzing staffing needs.

A budget workshop is slated for March 20, with three more meetings to follow in March. The School Board is expected to vote on the budget either March 29 or April 2, Kunin said.

The budget then goes on to the city council, and a referendum vote June 12.

Voters overwhelmingly approved the current, $49 million school budget last June. It was an increase of $1.2 million, or 2.4 percent, over the previous year.

Juliette Laaka can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or at jlaaka@theforecaster.net.

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