Portland’s island schools were taken off the chopping block Friday night, with the school board finance committee rejecting the idea of closing the two elementary schools as a way to lower the tax impact of the school budget.
Cheers broke out amid island residents, some holding signs, as the committee members tabled the idea.
“I can’t, under any circumstances, support that,” said committee member Roberto Rodriguez. “We have a lot of people from Peaks Island show up,” he added, gesturing to the scores of people in the room. “And they strongly showed up in our email in-boxes.”
The other island school is on Cliff Island.
The committee was trying to winnow down the superintendent’s original $113.4 million budget, which would increase the school portion of the tax rate – which is about half of the overall tax levy – by 9 percent. That would add $238 to the tax bill of the average home in Portland, which is valued at about $240,000.
The committee went line by line through $3.8 million in proposed cuts that would have reduced the budget to $109.6 million with a tax rate increase of 4.73 percent.
But they rejected most of the cuts, and finally agreed to send the full school board a $112 million budget, cutting $1.4 million, mostly through undisclosed personnel cuts in administration positions.
They rejected proposals to cut elementary school world languages, increase elementary school class size, eliminate some middle school electives, make $400,000 in undefined high school cuts and eliminate eight crossing guards and two school resource officers – police officers – stationed at Portland and Deering high schools.
The $112 million school budget would increase the school portion of the tax rate by 7.58 percent, adding $192 to the tax bill of the average home in Portland.
Some city councilors and the city manager, who draws up the municipal budget, have signaled that they think the proposed tax increase is too high and they want the board to present the City Council with a much lower budget. At the same time, Mayor Ethan Strimling has encouraged the board to support Superintendent Xavier Botana’s original budget, as did several speakers at Friday’s meeting.
“I stand ready to support and fight for the superintendent’s original budget. I think it’s the right investment going forward,” Strimling said Friday. “It’s an additional $6 million (invested) in our schools and I think that is smart.”
In presenting his budget, Botana said it included expanded programs and 13 new positions, several tied to the “Portland Promise,” a board-backed long-term plan to improve the schools. But the tax impact was higher than expected because the district got less in state subsidy than anticipated.
Botana said changes to the state funding formula and increasing property values in Portland – which means the state expects the city to pay a larger share of school costs – left the district with $3.4 million less in state subsidy than expected, while fixed costs such as salaries and benefits are increasing.
For example, under the initial budget, salaries increased $2.4 million – but $1.9 million of that was because of contractual obligations for current positions. Benefits increased $2.2 million, or 12.4 percent, and 91 percent of that was from projected increases in health insurance.
Parent David Hopkinson said he wanted the school board to fight for the superintendent’s original budget.
“Of course no one wants higher taxes, but we can’t stand around and talk about education in cutting terms,” said Hopkinson, who has a second-grader at Presumpscot Elementary School. “We need you to immediately vote for the superintendent’s original budget, then campaign like it’s re-election time because it is. This community will take notice.”
One speaker, Steven Scharf, said the board should look for even deeper cuts, such as moving administrators out of the Central Office and into the high schools, and offloading the Portland Arts and Technology High School to a private entity.
The school board will hold a public hearing on the finance committee’s recommended budget at 7 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall.
Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at: