May 13, 2013

Our View: Portland voters should back school budget

The question before residents represents a fair balance between needs and ability to pay.

Building a school budget is always a balancing act, and this year's Portland school budget, which goes to referendum Tuesday, is no exception.

click image to enlarge

Students file into Hall Elementary School in Portland. This year’s city school budget goes to referendum Tuesday.

2013 File Photo/John Patriquin

It's easy to see how some people would find a $91 million budget that requires a 3 percent tax hike to be excessive, especially since school enrollments are essentially flat.

It's just as easy to see how parents and future parents would consider a budget that cuts 50 positions and increases some class sizes to be overly austere, especially since the schools have not exactly been flush with resources over the last several years and there is not much fat left to cut.

But this budget achieves balance by providing the schools the resources they need to maintain and improve programs, while being frugal with the taxpayers' money. We encourage Portland voters to go to the polls and support this budget.

The Portland Board of Education, with the input of the City Council, has put together the essence of political compromise -- a deal that that no one will completely like. But voters, whether they have children in the schools or not, should support it.

STATE'S ROLE

The reason for the tough choices on both sides of the spending question is a result of the third factor in this equation: the state of Maine.

While everything from employee health insurance to gas for the school buses has gotten more expensive, the state subsidy to Portland schools has decreased by about $3.5 million since 2010.

That means Portland taxpayers have to shoulder more of the burden of running the schools and all of the increased costs.

Recognizing that, the board has come up with a plan that preserves core school programs, while cutting to keep overall costs in line.

Those programs include working with nonprofits and foundations to provide pre-kindergarten programs that give needy children a better chance to start school ready to learn.

And the school district will maintain its commitment to teaching world languages in elementary school, providing the foundation needed for students who will someday enter a global economy.

The budget also maintains funding for visual and performing arts, as well as sports, recognizing that such co-curricular programs are part of a well-rounded education.

The cuts have been made strategically, designed to have a minimal impact on students. Support work done by aides will be taken up by teachers. Positions will be eliminated in areas in which enrollment has slipped. There will be fewer small classes.

Some have argued that fewer staff cuts would have been necessary if the teachers represented by the Portland Education Association had been willing to forgo raises next year.

But the teachers are in the last year of a three-year contract, and they cannot be compelled to reopen it. The school board had no choice but to keep its commitments and include the raise into its calculations.

NO REASON TO SAY 'NO'

As unpleasant as many parts of this budget will seem, we can see no argument for voting it down.

Taxpayers who want to eliminate the increase would find, if the budget was defeated, that they would end up paying in other ways when core programs were decimated. Property values are boosted by a healthy school system, and one that is chronically underfunded would drive away the families that can leave.

Voting against the school budget because it is too austere makes even less sense. School officials would not see a "no" vote to be an endorsement of an even higher tax hike. If they did, it's likely that more property owners would come out and vote against that budget.

If Portland voters review the hard work done in difficult times to produce this budget, we think they will agree that it strikes a fair balance. We urge Portland residents to turn out and support the school budget.

 

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