PORTLAND — Debate this week could have a significant impact on the proposed $118 million school budget.

The School Board was scheduled to hold a public hearing Tuesday, after The Forecaster’s deadline. There will also be a joint meeting of the city and school finance committees at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, April 4, at City Hall, before the School Board votes on the budget next week.

The School Board Finance Committee endorsed the spending package last week that would add 61 cents per $1,000 of valuation to the property tax in the 2020 fiscal year, or about $144 a year to a home valued at $240,000.

At its March 28 meeting, the committee agreed to put an educational technician position back into the budget, which will allow the Peaks Island Elementary School to keep its pre-kindergarten program.

That change added just over $38,000 to the budget and added one cent to the proposed tax rate increase, according to the School Department’s finance office.

During a previous meeting of the city and school finance committees on March 27, Superintendent Xavier Botana said there were several budget drivers in the fiscal year that begins July 1, including an increase in debt service of just over $1 million for the first year of the Lyseth Elementary School renovation project.

Lyseth is the first school to be renovated under a $64 million bond passed in November 2017 to significantly upgrade four of the city’s elementary schools. Work is scheduled to begin soon on the $12 million Lyseth project; the other schools are Longfellow, Presumpscot and Reiche.

Overall, Botana said, the new school budget represents an increase in spending of $7.2 million, with about $2.6 million for new investments.

The new spending is designed to support an expanded pre-K program, additional behavioral health initiatives and core instruction aimed specifically at at-risk students. Botana said these new programs account for 22 cents of the proposed tax rate increase.

Botana said the School Department plans to add 32 seats in the upcoming academic year to expand the pre-K program, with an aim of adding a total of 140 seats over the next five years at a cost of about $3 million.

Behavioral health supports are critical for students, Botana said, while citing research that shows one in seven children suffer from mental health and behavioral disorders and that depression is now hitting kids at younger ages.

But, Botana said research also shows “strengthening the behavioral health continuum and teaching social-emotional skills not only improves achievement, …. but it also increases prosocial behaviors, improves student attitudes about school, and reduces depression and stress.”

While the School Department does a good job educating middle-class students, Botana said “performance lags significantly for our economically disadvantaged students.”

That led the district to focus on core content priorities, including math, early literacy, science and engineering and social studies.

To support these focus areas, Botana said the school district would like to hire a middle school math coach and a STEM coordinator, and spotlight phonics at the elementary level to build on key early literacy skills.

Both Botana and Anna Trevorrow, chairwoman of the School Board’s Finance Committee, said all of the spending in the proposed budget supports the School Department’s strategic plan, known as the Portland Promise.

Members of the City Council Finance Committee had a few questions last week but did not get into a detailed discussion of the numbers or proposed tax rate impact.

The School Board is set to hold a final vote on the budget at 7 p.m. Monday, April 8, at Casco Bay High School and will present its recommended budget to the full City Council on Monday, April 22.

The council is expected to hold a final vote on the proposed school budget on May 20. That proposal will go to voters for approval in a June 11 referendum.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 780-9097 or [email protected]. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

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