State aid helps trim Portland school budget proposal

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PORTLAND — The School Board on Tuesday was expected to recommend a proposed $103.6 million fiscal year 2017 budget to the City Council.

The budget has been altered since it was unveiled at the board’s March 8 meeting. The board’s finance committee made amendments and unanimously recommended the changes to the board.

The first proposed budget of $103.7 million would have resulted in a 4.5 percent increase in property taxes, or an increase of $46 per $100,000 of valuation. It anticipated a loss of $2.7 million loss in state subsidy.

But in between two ensuing finance committee meetings, the Portland Public Schools received word of an additional $1.34 million in state aid. The finance committee also voted to add $65,000 in tuition revenue for new students from the Maine Educational Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing; reduce debt service by more than $87,000; and reduce more than $34,000 in adult education wages by eliminating a half-time vacancy.

The resulting budget is a 0.8 percent increase over the fiscal year 2016 budget, or an increase of about $826,000. The first proposed budget was a 0.9 percent increase, or about $948,000.

The proposed tax rate increase is 2 percent, or a rate of $10.33 per $1,000 of assessed value, an increase over the current $10.12 per $1,000 of assessed value. Chief Financial Officer Ellen Sanborn said this results in an increase of $21 per $100,000 of valuation.

The impact on the owner of a home valued at the Portland average of $227,000 would be an increase of just under $48 in taxes. The previous budget called for a $104 increase.

The budget approved for 2016 was $102.8 million, and was a 1.2 percent increase over the preceding budget.

During a March 15 public hearing attended by only three city residents, interim Superintendent of Schools Jeanne Crocker called the budget “fiscally responsible” and said it “respects our taxpayers.”

Resident Steven Scharf said while in some cases an overall increase of just $826,000 would be cheered, the cost per-pupil is too high, given that projections for enrollment show a decrease of more than 120 students across the district.

At a workshop following the public hearing, and again at a March 24 finance committee meeting, Crocker said while enrollment figures are difficult to predict, projections show enrollment will be lower each year, largely because Maine is an aging state. She said the decrease will probably be 100 students a year. However, in a district the size of Portland, Crocker said the effects of declining enrollment aren’t as noticeable.

Crocker also said the latest proposed budget continues to move ahead with important initiatives, such as expanding the pre-kindergarten program. Chief Financial Officer Becky Foley said the program serves 108 students in seven classes, and the hope is to increase that by another class. She said the department is working towards “universal pre-K.”

The board’s finance committee has already met once with its City Council counterpart, on March 24. On April 4, the board will present its recommended budget to the council at City Hall. The council will then hold a workshop and first reading of the budget April 25, and is slated to vote on the budget proposal May 2.

A public referendum on the budget proposal is scheduled for Tuesday, May 10.

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

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Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.