The City Council’s Finance Committee ordered the School Committee on Thursday to cut its budget so the city can hold this year’s property tax increase to less than 1 percent.

That means music programs and middle school and freshmen sports — which the School Committee had previously slated for cuts but later restored — are once again vulnerable.

The School Committee will call a special meeting April 26 to identify cuts so it can deliver the paired-down budget for a public hearing before the City Council on April 27.

Superintendent Jim Morse said School Committee members will only consider options they’ve already discussed.

“They will pull no surprises,” Morse said.

School Committee Chairman Peter Eglinton said he is disappointed with the Finance Committee’s instructions but respects the process, which gives the City Council final authority over the school budget’s bottom line.

Councilor John Anton said he supported the School Committee’s $90 million budget plan, but his two colleagues on the Finance Committee, councilors Jill Duson and John Coyne, said they wanted reductions.

They said they want the city’s overall property-tax increase to be less than one percent, but did not offer guidance for how much the school budget should be cut to reach that goal.

The School Committee’s proposed budget, which would eliminate 45 positions, would increase taxes by 1.2 percent.

City Manager Joe Gray has proposed a $196 million non-school budget that would eliminate 40 positions and raise taxes by 1.4 percent.

When combined with the proposed school budget and county taxes, the total would add 23 cents — 1.3 percent — to Portland’s tax rate, raising it to $17.97 per $1,000 of valuation. The owner of a $200,000 home would pay $46 more in the coming year.

To bring the tax rate below 1 percent, the combined school and city budget would have to be cut by $400,000.

The economic downturn has many people worried about paying their bills, making it the wrong time to raise taxes, Duson said. She said the City Council has a different mission than the School Committee.

“We have to be responsive to the constituents who don’t have children in schools,” she said.

Portland spends $10,875 to educate each of its 7,000 students, compared with $9,624 per student statewide, excluding special education costs.

With special education costs included, Portland spends $19,248 per student. Fifteen of the eliminated teaching positions in the School Committee’s budget would come from special education.

Cutting the middle and high school sports programs, elementary band and orchestra programs and a sex-education teaching position would save $535,000.

Those programs had been slated to be cut before the committee learned last month that city schools would receive additional state aid.

Dennis Martin — treasurer of the Portland Youth Football League, a charitable volunteer organization — told the Finance Committee that there are many duplicate sports programs in the city and that volunteer groups like his could help replace the school sports programs.

“I wonder why middle school sports had to go back in the budget,” he said.

Chris Chandler, who has two children at Deering High School, said that a strong school system is an engine for growth because it attracts residents and businesses to the city. Moreover, he said, good schools are critical for the city’s children.

“There is no social service more valuable and more important than a good education,” he said.

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

[email protected]


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