South Portland school budget still a moving target

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SOUTH PORTLAND — School and city leaders, in separate presentations to the City Council Wednesday, said their proposed fiscal year 2018 budgets should meet the council’s desire to keep property tax increases under 3.5 percent.

On the municipal side, the budget increase is 3.36 percent, City Manager Scott Morelli said, to $85.6 million.

More people are buying automobiles and paying excise tax, which boosts the city’s bottom line, Morelli said. 

Property owners can expect to see a 3.75 percent rise in city taxes, he said. The rate would increase from its current $17.70 per $1,000 valuation to $18.36 per $1,000 valuation.

But on the school side, Superintendent Ken Kunin said early in his review that the School Board has not voted on a budget to bring to the council.

“There are too many unanswered questions,” Kunin said, including state funding to the city from Gov. Paul LePage and the Legislature, and health insurance costs.

On April 10, the School Board will meet in a workshop, where it may vote on a budget, he said.

The state subsidy to help South Portland fund its school budget currently shows a $305,000 reduction from this year, when the School Department received $6 million.

Many municipalities across Maine also are dealing with a cut in financial aid to schools. The state has long failed to follow through on a mandate from voters to cover 55 percent of a school district’s operating costs.

“We’re in uncertain and uncharted territory,” Kunin said. 

Aid to school districts in Maine may not be known until lawmakers in Augusta hammer out a budget with LePage.

“I think it will be a long road between hither and yon,” Kunin said. “Think June.”

That elicited a groan from at least one councilor.

Kunin then turned to the department’s known and positive notes.

He said the proposed $5.9 million budget may increase the school portion of the tax rate between 3 percent and 3.5 percent, within the range sought by the City Council.

Enrollment is expected to be 3,080 across all grades, he added, and more older students are enrolling in Career and Technical Education programs. 

To manage students’ health needs in all seven of the district’s schools, eight nurses are included in the proposed budget. One nurse per 800 students, which Kunin said is a state recommendation, is not adequate.

The district’s music and athletics programs will continue to be funded. Kunin recognized the support of taxpayers and citizens to pay for these and other school services.

The fiscal year 2018 change in the tax rate is expected to be 10 cents, up from 31 cents to 41 cents. The change in the school portion next year is anticipated to be $12.19, up from the present $11.78.

Classroom instruction is most of the budget’s cost, with salaries and benefits also a major factor.

 Lisa D. Connell can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 183 or Follow Lisa on Twitter: @connell_ld.

South Portland Superintendent of Schools Ken Kunin, at podium, discusses the fiscal year 2018 budget with the City Council on Wednesday, April 5.