The Portland school board’s finance committee is recommending that an additional $6.2 million in state funding the district is expecting to receive be spent on a combination of tax relief, the cost of custodial staff that is currently being paid with federal funds and to create a debt service relief fund.

The committee voted 2-0 on the recommendation, which will now move to the full board. Committee member Adam Burk was absent.

The recommendation comes as the Maine Legislature is weighing whether to approve a supplemental budget proposal from Gov. Janet Mills that includes an additional $187 million in state funding for K-12 schools. Portland school officials at Monday’s finance committee meeting expressed concern about trying to plan for money they don’t yet have but also said it’s necessary, especially if the district intends to use any of the extra money for tax relief this year.

“This recommendation doesn’t mean other options can’t be weighed by the board,” committee member Roberto Rodriguez said. “It’s just where we were at today given the uncertainty. At this point this is a hypothetical that is the basis on which the committee saw it.”

The recommendation from the committee specifically calls for $1.49 million to be used to offset a tax rate increase and create a zero percent combined city and school tax rate increase for the coming year. Another $1.3 million would be used to cover the cost of custodial staff currently being paid for with federal coronavirus relief funds but that will have to be reintroduced into the operating budget after the federal funding expires.

The remainder of the money Portland is expecting to receive – about $3.4 million – would be used to create a debt service relief fund to help offset increases in the baseline budget driven by debt service for the Buildings For Our Future renovations. Voters approved a $64 million bond for the four-school renovation project in 2017 and construction is expected to start this summer on three of the schools and is near completion on the fourth.

Other options the committee discussed Monday for spending the money included putting the entire $6.2 million toward property tax relief – which would result in a 1 percent decrease in the school side of the tax rate rather than the current 5.5 percent increase – or putting the entire $6.2 million toward debt service relief.

Board Chair Emily Figdor also suggested spending some of the money on pre-K expansion and before and after care. “Absent the opportunity on pre-K, I would want to do (the custodians and debt service) because it puts us in a better financial place down the road than we otherwise would be in,” Figdor said. “It deals with the debt service in a meaningful way. It doesn’t leave this potential gap in our budget with the custodians with paying for ongoing positions with federal money that is going to disappear.”

Portland voters overwhelmingly approved a $125.2 million school budget this month that, when combined with the city’s budget, calls for about a 1 percent overall tax increase. The budget currently includes about $18.7 million in state funding, which represents a decrease of 4.5 percent, or $880,000, largely due to increases in the city’s valuation.

On Monday, the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee voted in favor of several line items in the state budget change package, including funding K-12 schools at 55 percent, a number Maine voters approved in referendum in 2004 but that the state has never fully met.

“The reality is that Maine’s budget is a statement about what we value,” Senate President Troy Jackson said in a statement after the votes. “With the funding measures passed by the AFA Committee today, we say loud and clear that the Maine Legislature supports our public schools, students, teachers and hardworking property taxpayers. Maine voters have told us in no uncertain terms that the state needs to be doing its part to take care of our schools and help local government. It’s high time we kept that promise.”

 


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