PORTLAND – The City Council’s Finance Committee voted 3-1 Wednesday to recommend $175,000 in cuts to the $94.9 million school budget proposed for the next school year.

The committee also voted to recommend canceling the school board’s plan to spend more than $500,000 on a lease-to-own plan for new computers for teachers and students. Instead, the city should borrow money to pay for the technology upgrades, the committee said.

The committee also voted to support adding $44,000 to the proposed 2012-13 city budget to retain a community policing coordinator position in East Bayside. That position has been slated to be cut because of the loss of a federal grant.

In addition, the committee voted to support adding $50,000 to the city budget for the city’s tree maintenance program. Funding for that program has been cut during the recession.

The combined school and city budgets supported by the Finance Committee would increase Portland’s property tax rate by 2.9 percent. The tax rate would increase 54 cents, from $18.28 per $1,000 valuation to $18.82. For a home assessed at $200,000, taxes would go up $108.

Mayor Michael Brennan said he was pleased with the “elegant way” that the Finance Committee reduced the proposed tax rate increase for schools without harming school initiatives, such as plans to upgrade computers.

“It clearly makes investments in schools in a way we need to make but have not been able to make over the last several years,” he said. “We need to be able to move forward.”

Councilors John Anton, John Coyne and Nicholas Mavodones Jr. supported the proposed changes. Councilor Jill Duson voted “no.”

“I am not convinced that residents can handle a 2.9 percent tax increase,” Duson said in an interview after the vote.

The City Council will begin deliberations on the budget Monday and vote on May 7.

The proposed budget would require property taxpayers to replace $226,000 in lost state funds due to cuts in state reimbursements to cities and towns for General Assistance expenditures.

It includes a $71,000 increase for English language courses run by Portland Adult Education.

Those courses have had a surge in enrollment in recent years, creating a waiting list of 160 people. The additional funding would cut the waiting list by half.

The school board’s big new initiative calls for upgrading the computers used by teachers and students, including replacing Dell Netbooks used by high school students with laptops.

For elementary schools that now have old computers, the school board wants to replace computer labs with a system in which computers are brought into classrooms on carts.

The school board had proposed spending $526,000 as the first payment in a four-year lease-to-purchase plan for new computers and wiring upgrades. The plan would cost $2 million in the fourth year. By that time, the school district would be in a position to pay the annual cost out of its operating budget, said Peter Eglinton, the system’s chief operations officer.

It is generally cheaper to borrow money than make lease payments, said Councilor John Anton, chair of the Finance Committee. The committee voted to support removing that money from the operating budget.

Other cuts to the school budget recommended by the Finance Committee won’t hurt programs because the district has recently received news about lower-than-expected increases in health insurance costs and can fill the gap with that money, said Superintendent Jim Morse.

Once the budget process is finished, the City Council will decide which city and school projects should be funded with borrowed money. Anton said he expects that technology improvements for the schools will rank high on the list of priorities and win approval. 

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

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