Wednesday, March 12, 2014
Voters overwhelmingly passed a $96.4 million school budget Tuesday, despite deep staffing cuts needed to pay for raises and other increasing costs. With all 11 precincts reporting, the budget was approved with 59 percent of the vote – 1,395 to 971.
Voters also decided, 1,319 to 1,032, to continue the annual citywide votes on the school budget.
"I'm very pleased," said school board Chairman Jaimey Caron. "It's not a budget that folks are thrilled about, but we did our best to balance the impact on taxpayers and preserve a quality education system."
The budget for the year starting July 1 will increase the schools' portion of Portland's property tax rate by 3 percent, adding $58 to the annual tax bill for a home with an assessed value of $200,000.
The $96.4 million in spending is a 2.3 percent increase over the $94.2 million approved by voters last year.
The budget approved Tuesday does not account for possible cuts in state funding, including a proposal by Gov. Paul LePage to shift $1.3 million in teachers' retirement contributions from the state to the school district. If the cuts are adopted by the Legislature, Portland will have to revise its budget.
"It could be a very significant impact. Folks should stay tuned," Caron said. "There could be some hard work ahead."
Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk noted that, despite the staffing cuts, the budget maintains core programs. It also preserves funding for programs such as pre-kindergarten and adult education. "We deeply regret the number of layoffs that will occur and the resulting loss of many talented teachers and staff," Caulk said in a written statement. "At the same time, we recognized the need to keep property taxes affordable for Portland residents."
Property taxes needed to fund Maine's largest school district have increased every year for the past four years. Since 2009, the district has eliminated more than 100 positions and lost millions of dollars in state and federal funds.
The budget for 2013-14 includes deep cuts to offset nearly $8 million in cost increases, including $1.7 million in raises for teachers. Several years ago, in the midst of a financial crisis, the union agreed to a contract that put off salary increases to 2013-14.
The needed staff reductions are still being calculated, but the district estimates that more than 50 locally funded and 15 grant-funded full-time positions could be eliminated.
Among those cuts are 36 teachers and educational technicians, 5.5 central office positions and 3.5 school administrators.
Teachers union President Kathleen Casasa said the union urged its members who live in Portland to vote to pass the budget.
Portland school budget votes have historically had low turnout. Last year, only 1,513 voters cast ballots, about 3 percent of the registered voters in the city.
This year, 2,368 people participated, about 4.6 percent of registered voters. By comparison, the general election in November drew 36,690 residents, 75 percent of all registered voters.
School board member Justin Costa called Tuesday's vote "very encouraging."
"It shows that even in the toughest of times, the city supports its school system and wants it to be successful," he said.
Only one precinct, North Deering, voted to reject the budget, 195 to 183. The 10 other precincts voted to pass it.
At the Woodfords Church polling place, Tina Provencher, a first-grade teacher at Lyseth Elementary School, said she thought it was important to vote, particularly in light of the tough financial situation.
"We want the best education for our kids," Provencher said after she cast her ballot. "I think it's important to vote, no matter what."
School budget referendum votes are required under the Maine School Administrative Reorganization Law, enacted in 2007 as a way to increase transparency and accountability.
Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at: