Portland Superintendent Xavier Botana has backed off his proposal to close island schools, among other controversial measures, as part of $1.1 million in budget reductions demanded by the City Council.

Botana prepared a new list of proposed cuts after councilors voted Monday to reduce the school budget over the objection of education advocates. His new list was presented to the school board Tuesday evening, and the board is scheduled to vote Thursday on final adjustments to its budget.

Botana originally had said he might have to close schools on Cliff and Peaks islands if the council ordered significant reductions in the $111.8 million budget recommended by the board. He also said he might have to eliminate foreign languages in elementary schools, increase elementary class sizes, and eliminate crossing guards and school resource officers.

Although the most dramatic reductions he mentioned are not on his new list, there are proposals to cut a handful of teaching and educational technician positions, as well as trimming budgets for contracts and shortening the school calendar by two days.

The $110.6 million education budget approved by the council Monday is about $5 million larger than the current school budget, but the school board and other advocates, including Mayor Ethan Strimling, described it as a step backward for the district and a blow to long-term improvement efforts.

Although smaller than the school board’s proposals, the $110.6 million budget represents a $4.9 million, or 4.6 percent, spending increase from the current year and would result in a 5 percent increase in the school portion of the tax rate.

When combined with the proposed $247 million municipal budget, residents could see a roughly 3.8 percent increase in their property taxes, from $21.65 per $1,000 of assessed value to $22.47. That would add about $196.80 to the annual tax bill of a home assessed at $240,000.

SUGGESTIONS FROM CITY COUNCILOR

Botana’s slate of possible budget reductions figured prominently in public testimony in support of the board’s proposal. Botana, who originally requested a $113 million budget, was not available to comment Tuesday afternoon, his assistant said. Botana’s memo to the board does not explain why he suggested closing schools and other controversial budget measures early in the process, and now has identified alternatives to those cuts.

School board Chairwoman Anna Trevorrow also was not available for comment Tuesday.

“He may be able to trim around the edges to get to the $1.1 million,” board member Sarah Thompson said. “He’s trying to minimize the impact in any one place.”

Strimling said Botana’s list of potential cuts was based on a scenario in which the council required deeper cuts to the budget. However, the list being considered by the board still would negatively affect students, he said.

“These cuts are sending us backwards,” said Strimling, who supported Botana’s original $113 million proposal. “It’s not the direction the city wants us to go.”

Botana’s new list of proposals includes some of the suggestions made by City Councilor Justin Costa, a former school board member who described the superintendent’s original list of cuts as a “parade of horribles.” Although councilors can only set the bottom line for school spending and cannot dictate line items, Costa offered his suggestions last week, he said, as a way to move the conversation toward a more “reasonable path.”

SCHOOL YEAR ABBREVIATED

Costa said he was not surprised to see a completely different set of proposed cuts. The list of cuts, he said, “protects things the public has been told are on the chopping block for the last two months.”

Botana supported Costa’s recommendations to reduce the funding increase in school supplies and the school board’s contingency fund, although by lesser amounts than Costa suggested. He also supported eliminating a two-day professional development program for teachers that would have cost $184,000.

That change would lead to a two-day reduction in the school year, putting Portland’s school year one day above the state minimum.

Botana also agreed to trim hourly wages at Portland Adult Education, although by $100,000 instead of by $150,000 as Costa suggested. He said the reduction still allows for a $2 an hour raise for current staff.

REDUCING POSITIONS, SERVICES

Additional reductions in Botana’s list that are unrelated to Costa’s suggestions include:

• Eliminating three or four elementary school teacher positions, which would mean that projected first-grade class sizes at Hall Elementary School are 20 students, while second-grade class sizes at Lyseth and Reiche would be 22 and 19.33 students, respectively. It was not clear what those class sizes are now.

• Reducing one elective teaching position at each middle school. “All middle schools would retain five elective teachers, allowing still for a robust exploratory program,” Botana wrote.

• Eliminating an ed tech position on Cliff Island, which is currently vacant. “Given projected enrollment of three, the teacher position will be able to fully meet the student needs without additional support,” he wrote. “This does create a setting where the teacher is completely alone with students most of the day.”

• Reducing contracted services by $83,000, including two $25,000 contracts with Jobs For Maine’s Graduates and a $31,000 contract with Opportunity Alliance to support and coordinate the Foster Grandparent Program.

• Reducing the technology budget by $50,574 and the assistant superintendent’s budget by $25,000.

The new slate of cuts was sent to board members after Monday night’s vote and formally presented at a meeting Tuesday. Final action by the school board is expected Thursday.

Once approved by the board, the new budget will be sent to the council for final approval on Monday, so it can be put to voters on June 12.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

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