PORTLAND – The City Council unanimously approved an $89.9 million school budget Monday, sending the issue to voters for an up-or-down vote on May 11.

The budget would raise the schools’ portion of Portland’s property tax rate by 1 percent. If voters reject it, the School Committee will assume that they want deeper cuts, said the committee’s chairman, Peter Eglinton.

“The only place it can go if it is voted down is lower,” he said of the budget.

He said the School Committee will make that assumption because several city councilors have expressed concerns about a tax increase during an economic downturn.

As proposed, the school budget would eliminate 60 jobs and create 15.5 new positions, including two world language teachers for elementary schools and 8.5 teaching positions for students who are learning English as a second language.

The budget reflects a reduction of more than $4.5 million in state and federal funding for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Rather than simply make cuts in response to the loss of revenue, the School Committee looked for ways to reduce spending while crafting a strategic plan for the city’s schools, Eglinton said.

There will be two questions on ballot. Besides deciding on the school budget, voters will decide whether they want to stop voting on school budgets, and give the final decision back to the City Council.

Under a state school reform law passed in 2007, voters in Maine’s school districts must sign off on budgets.

This year, the same state law allows voters in each district to decide whether they want to maintain the process or give officials the final say.

“It’s a three-year check in,” Eglinton said

This is the third year in which Portland residents are voting on the school budget. Turnout in the past two elections has been dismal.

A year ago, when the budget was approved with 82 percent of the vote, only 2,167 people — 4.7 percent of Portland’s approximately 46,000 active voters — showed up at the polls.

It costs about $20,000 to hold an election. Eglinton said the school budget referendum must be held in May to give the School Committee time to amend the budget before it takes effect on July 1.

Also Tuesday, the City Council heard public testimony on the $196.3 budget for municipal services in 201o-11. The council will vote on the municipal budget on May 17.

Several residents from Peaks Island complained about planned cuts to police staffing on the island.

The budget proposed by City Manager Joe Gray calls for one officer on the island at a time, instead of two. There would be a second officer on the island on summer weekends.

Also, one of the four firefighters assigned to the city’s fireboat would be stationed on the island at all times.

When Peaks Island’s secession effort was defeated in the Legislature in 2007, city officials said they would make an effort to take care of the island’s public safety needs, according to islanders.

Now the city is breaking its agreement, said Michael Sylvester of Peaks Island. “I feel like we are being welched on,” he said.

Daniel Rose, a police officer who is likely to be transferred from the island to the mainland, told councilors that it is harder for one police officer to be effective in a situation requiring force.

Rose, who is a member of the police union, the Police Benevolent Association, said a lone officer will have to wait about 30 minutes for backup to arrive from the mainland.

 

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

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