May 7, 2013

School budget headed to Portland voters cuts 49 positions

It also calls for a 3 percent property tax increase to support Portland schools in difficult budget times.

By Randy Billings
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — The City Council voted 7-1 Monday to send a $96.4 million school budget to Portland voters on May 14.

The budget for the year starting July 1 does not account for state budget proposals that could shift more than $1.3 million in costs to property taxpayers.

Even so, it would increase the portion of Portland's tax rate that supports schools by 3 percent, from $9.57 to $9.86 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, while cutting nearly 49 positions.

The school budget, as proposed, would add about $60 to the annual tax bill for a home with an assessed value of $200,000.

The city budget, which includes county taxes, is also factored into the property tax rate and is still being deliberated.

Voters will also be asked on May 14 whether they want Portland to continue holding school budget referendums.

Mayor Michael Brennan said he will ask voters to support the budget. He also echoed the sentiment of the majority of the council that voters should end school budget referendums, which he called a "convoluted, unnecessary and expensive process."

Councilor John Anton, who leads the council's Finance Committee, cast the only vote against the budget, because it would raise taxes while laying off dozens of employees.

"I can't accept that," Anton said. "Those two things don't add up, to me."

Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk's original budget proposal assumed $8 million in cost increases -- including state budget proposals that could add nearly $2 million to the local share of the budget.

But the projected impact of the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science charter school was reduced from $600,000 to $110,000.

The budget passed Monday ignores a potential shift of $1.3 million in teacher retirement costs from the state to the school district, as proposed by Gov. Paul LePage. Of the remaining cost increases, contractual raises owed to teachers are the biggest, at $1.7 million. City and school officials are trying to persuade the teachers union to renegotiate the raises to minimize staffing cuts, but the union has not agreed.

The budget would eliminate roughly 49 full-time positions, to save an estimated $3.4 million.

Meanwhile, health care costs are expected to increase in the next year by 13 percent, or $875,000.

The actual number of cuts and layoffs is still uncertain because of the bumping rights in the teachers contract, said Justin Costa, chairman of the school board's Finance Committee.

During public comment Monday, the teachers union president made a spirited defense of the union's decision to not reopen its contract to find savings, and a provision in the contract that requires the district to pay 80 percent of her salary.

The district paid Portland Education Association President Kathleen Casasa, who spends all of her time working on union issues, $82,880 in 2012.

A full-time union president is needed to represent teachers, she said, while bringing in national education experts at no cost to the district.

"The district needs the PEA in this work," Casasa said.

She said teachers haven't received an increase in their base pay in the last five years, and next year's raises are the district's reward to teachers for previous concessions, including adding four teaching days with no additional pay. While it is unwilling to reopen its contract, the union has proposed ways to trim the budget, including offering a retirement incentive, but the district has not adopted any of those ideas, Casasa said.

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