PORTLAND — Most members of the City Council want the school board to cut its proposed $94.9 million budget for the year that starts July 1, but there is no consensus about how much to cut, Mayor Michael Brennan said Tuesday.
“The general sentiment at this point is that it’s too high,” Brennan said.
School board member Justin Costa, who chairs the school board’s Finance Committee, said the board is sensitive to any property-tax increase caused by the school budget and will do its best over the next two weeks to work out an agreement with the council.
The proposed school budget would increase the tax rate by 3.4 percent. The tax bill on a home valued at $200,000 would increase by $64. The school board approved the budget April 10, but the budget is subject to approval by the City Council.
Costa said any budget cuts would come at a cost. Because of revenue shortfalls during the recession, the board has eliminated more than 100 positions over the past three years. The city now must make investments to keep its school system from falling behind suburban districts, he said.
“We can’t pretend that the bottom of the recessionary dip is the new normal,” he said. “We know that is not sufficient.”
The school budget proposed for 2012-13 would keep the same number of positions as this year’s budget – 1,081 full-time equivalent positions.
In addition, the proposal includes $524,000 as the first expenditure in a four-year plan to spend $2 million upgrading the district’s outdated computers and technology infrastructure.
As part of its investment in technology, Costa said, the district is looking at the possibility of buying laptop computers for high school students when its service contract for Dell Netbooks expires in the fall.
The proposed budget also would expand world languages to grade 5 and increase the number of students in the early-childhood program from 69 to 150.
To cushion the anticipated loss of $2.1 million that was provided by the federal American Jobs Act for retaining employees during the recession, the school board proposes allocating $1 million from its fund balance to “smooth the drop-off,” Costa said.
City Councilor Cheryl Leeman said many Portland residents have yet to recover from the recession and can’t afford to pay more in property taxes.
“Our property taxes are running way ahead of what people have coming for income,” she said, and people also are paying more for fuel and groceries. “I’m terribly worried and concerned about people slipping right off the edge. And I don’t want to tip them over the edge with an unreasonably high increase in the property tax.”
City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones Jr., who serves on the City Council’s Finance Committee, said the consensus on the committee is that the tax increase should be less than 3 percent but the committee has not reached an agreement on a specific amount.
City Councilor John Anton, who chairs the committee, is on vacation and could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
City Councilor David Marshall said he has heard that Finance Committee members believe the school budget is too high.
“My question is: What would have to come out if it’s too high? That is what I need to know, whether we have room in the budget to make reductions without impacting the classrooms.”
To cut the budget, the school board would have to reduce staffing levels and scale back investments in technology, said Superintendent Jim Morse.
The school board will not begin revising its budget it until it gets more direction from the City Council, Morse said.
“The council’s job is to tell us how much they are willing to support,” he said, “but we can’t be in a position to be guessing what the number should be.”
Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: [email protected]
Correction: This story was revised at 9:40 a.m., April 18, 2012, to reflect the school budget’s impact on the city’s tax rate. The proposed budget would increase the tax rate by 3.4 percent. The tax bill on a home valued at $200,000 would increase by $64