SOUTH PORTLAND — City councilors on Monday approved the School Board’s $39.9 million operating budget for the next school year and sent the budget to a May 15 referendum. 

While the City Council passed the budget, it didn’t do so without dissent. The council voted 5-2, with Councilors Al Livingston and Jerry Jalbert dissenting.

“Board members, I appreciate all the effort you put in,” said Livingston, a former School Board member. But “… the time for liberal spending is over. I don’t think we can keep putting it on our citizens.”

The School Board faced a large revenue shortfall in planning for fiscal 2013. Over the past four years, federal stimulus and Jobs Bill funds have filled budget gaps to the tune of $4.8 million. This year, the district received $1.6 million in federal funding.

In the fiscal year that begins July 1, that number is zero. There is an increase in state subsidy, from $2.1 million this year to an expected $3.1 million next year, but total state-and-federal aid is still down by more than $600,000. 

The budget passed Monday represents a 1.78 percent increase in operating costs. The School Board had originally proposed a 2.2 percent increase, but carved off $136,000 in spending

“You told the School Board that what we originally brought you was too high,” School Board member Jeff Selser said Monday. “You asked, in fact you asked twice, for use to go back and reduce the budget, which we did.”

The budget cuts four positions – a warehouse clerk, two library clerks and a high school science teacher – but funds 35 positions that were previously paid with federal stimulus and Jobs Bill funds.

Livingston said it wasn’t good enough.

“Last Monday, I felt insulted to listen to the same rhetoric from the superintendent about how we’d lost money from (the stimulus) and from state funding,” he said. “… I don’t think we should be adding new positions with the way things are, with the economy.”

Livingston also complained about the school’s habit of carrying a surplus every year.

Frequent School Board critic Albert DiMillo Jr. has also decried the surplus. He says carrying over extra money every year means residents are paying more in taxes than education actually costs. 

In January, that surplus amounted to about $3 million, but next year’s budget calls for spending $1.05 million of the surplus. The School Board has defended its surplus, saying that most of the money isn’t actually unallocated, but sits in reserve accounts for costly expenses like bus replacement and technology upgrades. 

Councilor Tom Coward said that while the budget is large, it’s not unreasonable.

“This is a cost that’s required for public education in a major Maine municipality in the 21st century,” he said. “This is not something that we can or should afford to do on the cheap.”

Now the decision is up to voters.

Of the nearly $39.9 million budget, $36.8 million will be contributed by taxpayers. Add another $1.9 million slated to pay down debt and save for the South Portland High School renovations – spending already approved by voters – and city property owners are facing a 4.4 percent tax increase for education. 

For the average South Portland homeowner, the budget represents a $90 tax increase over the current year. 

If voters reject the budget, another budget must be hashed out and approved by the School Board and the council before going back to residents for another vote. If residents don’t approve a budget by July 1, the most recent School Board budget is adopted until they do.

Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 15, at the South Portland Community Center, 21 Nelson Road. Absentee ballots are available at City Hall. 

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @riocarmine.

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