Only a handful of people turned out Tuesday night for a public hearing on Portland’s proposed $118 million school budget, with two supporting the proposal and two urging the board to make cuts.

“I think the school committee has to make some hard decisions,” resident Jo Coyne told board members, noting that a consultant working with the district recently found its two main high schools are operating at below-average capacity. “You’re not doing anything about under-capacity schools, but you’re asking for more money from taxpayers so we can have new programs.”

The budget, a 6.5 percent increase over the current $110.6 million budget, includes about $1.8 million in new programs known as the “Portland Promise.” That includes expanding the pre-kindergarten program, adding a math coach and a science, technology, engineering and math coordinator, and reorganizing services for students with special behavioral and emotional needs.

The proposed budget for the year starting July 1 would increase the school portion of the tax rate by 5.5 percent – about the same increase approved by voters last year. It would add 61 cents to the school portion of the tax rate for a total of $11.75, and it would be an increase of $146 per year for a home assessed at $240,000, which the city says is the average value in Portland.

“You’ve done great work, so thank you. I support the budget,” said John Thibodeau, an organizer with Protect Our Neighborhood Schools. “Go boldly into your negotiations with the city council. I ask you to go into those negotiations defending it, making your case for why this is a good budget for our schools.”

The board’s finance committee made one change to the superintendent’s original budget, adding $39,000 to provide an education technician to the Peaks Island elementary school in order to continue the pre-K program.

The school board had its first reading of the budget Tuesday, and is scheduled to vote next Monday on whether to recommend the budget to the city council.

The district’s pre-K expansion would add 13.5 positions and two classrooms, for $560,615. The reorganization of services for students with behavioral issues, now known as the Breathe program, would add 31 positions, mostly education technicians and largely covered by MaineCare, and would cost the district $530,370. Curriculum changes as part of the core instruction focus will add 1.5 positions, at a cost of $276,250.

Superintendent Xavier Botana said improving core instruction would include continuing a districtwide focus on math, adding an elementary phonics program, and increasing professional development for elementary math and English.

Overall, the budget increases the number of district staff by 53 full-time equivalent positions, to 1,172. Salaries and benefits total about $93 million, and account for about 77 percent of the budget.

The current $110.6 million school budget increased the school portion of the tax rate by 5 percent. In 2017 the $104.8 million school budget raised the school portion of the tax rate 2.75 percent. In 2016, it was a 2 percent tax rate increase.

A public referendum on the budget is scheduled for June 11.

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