Dozens of people spoke out Tuesday evening against proposed cuts to the Portland school budget, rejecting the idea of closing island schools, eliminating world languages in elementary schools and electives in middle schools, and other reductions.

“We need to step up,” said Robert Moldaver, the father of a 10th-grader in the school district, at the packed public hearing before the school board’s finance committee. “We need to support a full, robust budget.”

With the budget crunch, he said, “the role of the school board is one of advocacy, … to rally around a positive budget to make it through some tough times.”

Superintendent Xavier Botana’s original $113 million budget would increase the school portion of the tax rate – which is about half of the overall tax levy – by 9 percent. That would add $238 to the tax bill of the average home in Portland, which is valued at about $240,000.

On Tuesday, at the request of the finance committee, Botana outlined $3.8 million in cuts, leading to a $109.6 million budget with a tax rate impact of 4.73 percent. That would add $120 to the tax bill of the average home in Portland.

“Let me be clear. This is not my budget; this is a revision to my budget,” Botana said. Lowering the tax impact “requires painful cuts to programs and services and it has been excruciating.”

Among the changes he suggested: saving $1 million through administrative cuts; $550,000 by closing Peaks and Cliff Island elementary schools; $387,000 by eliminating middle school electives; and $322,000 by increasing elementary class sizes.

Of the 34 speakers, only one supported the cuts. The others said they opposed the reductions, with many adding that they supported the original $113 million budget and encouraged the board to urge the City Council to put the full budget before the voters.

City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones, chairman of the council’s finance committee, already has said the city can’t afford the proposed school budget. Generally, the city has asked the school board to keep any tax impact to no more than 2.5 percent.

“Put it out to the people. We will vote for it. We will. It’s a chance to lead on this,” said parent Jeanne Handy, who has a son at Casco Bay High School. “We are all in this together. We can be leaders or we can take 10 steps backwards. I sincerely hope you don’t do that.”

At least a dozen people from Peaks Island spoke in opposition to closing the local school, which they described as critical to the survival of the year-round community.

“If you close the school, you’ll ruin the island. You’re literally asking to rip it apart,” said Becky Lynch, a resident of Peaks Island and mother to two young children. “Don’t take that school away,” she said, her voice breaking.

Several school board members not on the finance committee attended the meeting, with several saying they would not support the proposed cuts.

“This is so hard,” school board member Sarah Thompson said. “It’s a shame.”

She said she didn’t support “99 percent” of the cuts, particularly cutting school resource officers and crossing guards, and called closing the island schools “a knee-jerk reaction.”

“We cannot be closing schools as a result of a budget,” Thompson said. “It has to be a conversation with the community.”

The school board’s finance committee is scheduled to meet at 5:30 p.m. Friday at Casco Bay High School to vote on a recommended budget to the full board. The school board will hold a public hearing at 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 3, at City Hall.

 

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