On the same day that Portland students go back to school, Portland voters will go back to the polls for some unfinished business regarding the school budget.
On Sept. 4, they will be asked to approve additional spending for the current year, reflecting changes made to the state budget in the closing days of the session. These are small but also important. City residents should do their part and remember to turn out and support the school budget.
Some voters may look at the question on the ballot and have sticker shock. The referendum calls for an additional $1.9 million in spending over the $96.4 million that voters approved in May.
But that is misleading. The state school district consolidation law that requires school budgets to be approved by the voters only asks them to accept the total expenditures, not incoming revenue. Along with the additional expense, the state is also delivering $1.9 million in additional funding. Approving the referendum would have no effect on local taxpayers; rejecting it would not lower taxes.
The vote is necessary because the school board passed its budget before legislators were done with theirs. School administrators had to make assumptions about what the state would do.
The biggest assumption was that the Legislature would not adopt the plan proposed by the governor to shift responsibility for teacher retirement contributions from the state to school districts. But this proposal was adopted, passing a burden onto municipal property taxpayers, especially those in communities like Portland that are low receivers of state subsidy. For Portland, this will mean an expense of an additional $1.4 million.
Recognizing that schools had already set their budgets and many had cut theirs significantly, lawmakers included additional aid to schools to help smooth the transition.
The $1.9 million that Portland will receive will cover the new pension responsibility and allow the city to restore eight of the 55 positions that were eliminated in the spring. Those jobs were cut not because the school system didn’t need those people but because it couldn’t afford them
If voters reject this referendum, the money will not go to the taxpayers or be returned to the state. It would go into the city’s fund balance, where it would likely be spent anyway.
It’s better to restore these positions now, when they can make a difference in children’s lives. Portland voters should remember to turn out Wednesday and vote “yes.”