Voters approve Portland school budget

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PORTLAND — Voters overwhelming supported Portland’s fiscal 2011 school budget on Tuesday, but were narrowly divided about whether to continue the budget validation process for another three years.

Question 2 was gridlocked at 1,002 votes on each side until the final precinct, St. Pious, reported its results at 9:51 p.m. In the end, voters decided to keep the budget validation referendum by a 13-vote margin, 1,192 to 1,179.

The vote on the $89.9 million budget was not nearly as close. It passed by a nearly 3-1 margin, 1,697 to 682.

City Clerk Linda Cohen said Tuesday’s results were tentative and would have to be certified on Wednesday.

School Committee Chairman Peter Eglinton said he wasn’t surprised that voters decided to keep the referendum process, but would like to see greater participation.

“There is value for having a sense on where the electorate stands,” he said. “I will defer to those who come out (to vote) to decide whether it’s worth the money.”

This year’s turnout of 5 percent is slightly better than last year’s turnout of 4.6 percent. The last two years, however, have not been able to match the 8 percent turnout during the first year of the validation process in 2008.

Cohen said the election, which drew only 2,381 of the city’s 47,000 registered voters, cost the city about $20,000. That works out to to about $8.40 for every vote cast.

Eglinton said he appreciates the community’s support for the district’s efforts over the last year, which has included instituting a multi-year budgeting process to focus on long-term goals – even in unsteady economic times.

Next year’s budget process, Eglinton said, promises to be more difficult. The district expects to lose more federal funding next year and is not ruling out another mid-year curtailment in state education aid. 

“We can’t relax by any means,” he said. “At least for the foreseeable future, we can move on and educate our children.”

The $89.9 million spending plan for the budget year starting July 1 would eliminate 45 jobs, but begin rebuilding the elementary foreign language program while bolstering staffing for English Language Learners, who account for about 25 percent of the city’s 7,000 students.

Although the budget is $1.2 million smaller than current budget, it will result in a 1 percent tax increase, since a nearly $4.5 million reduction in state and federal funding shifts more of the budget burden to local property owners.

Over the next year, the district expects to hire independent consultants to evaluate programs that were nearly cut from next year’s budget.

The superintendent originally proposed significant cuts to some middle and high school athletics that are currently offered through other community organizations. Instead, a consultant will review the potential impact of the plan and draft an implementation strategy.

The kindergarten through 12th-grade string and orchestra program was also on the chopping block, but instructors were given a year to figure out a way to bolster enrollment.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or