A dozen people turned out Tuesday night for the Portland Board of Education’s first public hearing on the school budget, most expressing gratitude to the finance committee for backing the bulk of the superintendent’s budget despite pressure to cut programs or staff.

“I want to thank you for supporting the budget,” said Jen Boggs, a local business owner who has a second-grader at Longfellow Elementary School. Investing in schools, she said, “will pay off; it’s the long game.”

“I believe in the economy of Portland, and education is part of it,” Boggs said. “It will keep the city growing.”

The finance committee has recommended a $112 million budget to the school board, which had a first reading and a public hearing at its meeting at City Hall. Among the speakers were several parents, several school principals, the head of the local teachers union and Mayor Ethan Strimling. Only one person, Steven Scharf, spoke against the proposal, saying more cuts should be made to lower the budget.

The committee cut about $1.4 million, mostly through undisclosed personnel cuts in administration positions, from Superintendent Xavier Botana’s original $113.4 million proposal, which would have increased the school portion of the tax rate by 9 percent.

Under an initial estimate, the $112 million budget would have increased the school portion of the tax rate by 7.6 percent, but it dropped to 6.6 percent on Tuesday after the city assessor updated the city’s property valuation to $7.9 billion, up from $7.76 billion.

That 6.6 percent increase on the school portion of the tax rate – which is about half the municipal budget – would add $168 to the tax bill of the average home in Portland, which is valued at about $240,000.

In presenting his budget, Botana said it included expanded programs and 13 new positions, several tied to the “Portland Promise” – a board-backed long-term plan to improve the schools.

The finance committee eliminated three of the new positions.

Botana said the spending was in line with the board’s plans, but the tax impact was higher than expected because the district got less in state subsidy than anticipated.

Botana said changes to the state funding formula and increasing property values in Portland – which means the state expects the city to pay a larger share of school costs – left the district with $3.4 million less in state subsidy than expected, while fixed costs such as salaries and benefits are increasing.

For example, under the initial budget, salaries increased $2.4 million – but $1.9 million of that was because of contractual obligations for current positions. Benefits increased $2.2 million, or 12.4 percent, and 91 percent of that was from projected increases in health insurance.

On Tuesday, Strimling thanked the finance committee for not making deep cuts, and said there may be “pushback” when it gets to the city’s finance committee.

“When it goes to finance … I hope those conversations are as open as you have been to hearing the community and the importance of putting our kids first,” he said. He added that people concerned about the tax burden hitting seniors on fixed incomes the hardest should recall the city’s recently enacted Portland Senior Tax Equity Program, or P-STEP, which provides tax relief to residents over the age of 62.

“They are going to receive, next year, up to $900, well beyond what this (tax impact) may be,” he said. “To expand that property tax relief program, that’s the right answer.”

The Portland school board will vote April 12 to whether to recommend the proposed budget to the City Council.

 

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