Portland Superintendent Xavier Botana has said that his $113 million budget proposal “puts Portland at a crossroads.” Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Portland school and city officials are heading straight into a bruising conflict over the superintendent’s proposed $113 million budget, with some backing the full amount and others demanding deep cuts to lower the tax impact.

The key issue is the tax rate. Superintendent Xavier Botana’s budget would increase the school portion of the tax rate – which is about half of the overall tax levy – by 9 percent. That would add $238 to the tax bill of the average home in Portland, which is valued at about $240,000.

The school board’s finance committee has asked Botana to cut $3.9 million from the budget, lowering the tax impact to 4.5 percent. No formal votes have been taken, but the school budget is on a collision course with city officials who say they’re already trying to find ways to cut the municipal side of the budget.

“It’s an incredibly challenging budget year,” said City Manager Jon Jennings, who draws up the municipal budget. “We simply are not going to be able to do all of the things that, frankly, we need to do. That is the struggle.”

Jennings said he is trying to bring in a municipal budget with a tax increase of no more than 2.5 percent.

The school budget’s next stop is before a joint meeting of the school board and City Council finance committees Thursday – the first time both city and board members will discuss the proposal. That meeting is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. in Room 209 at City Hall.

Traditionally, feedback from the council’s finance committee is key because the full council must approve the school budget before it goes out to the public for a vote. The council, which sets the spending limits for municipal and school operations, has yet to hold its annual goal-setting session, scheduled for March 26, which provides guidance on the maximum property tax increase for the upcoming year.

City finance committee Chairman Nicholas Mavodones already has said the city can’t afford the proposed school budget. He said he understands the school board doesn’t want to make cuts, but members have to make “difficult and necessary” reductions.

“They have a challenging scenario,” Mavodones said. “We’re at a time when it’s necessary.”

JENNINGS: ‘IT IS NOT GOING TO BE EASY’

Although the city hasn’t signaled what kind of tax increase might be considered, Jennings and city Finance Director Brendan O’Connell have said policies and agreements already approved by the council could lead to as much as a 2.9 percent increase in the tax levy, a figure that does not account for any other potential revenue or expenditures.

Despite those commitments, Jennings said he is working to get that figure down to 2.5 percent, meaning cuts elsewhere.

“We’ve been looking at any and all places to cut,” Jennings said Wednesday. “It is not going to be easy.”

On Tuesday, school district staff presented a list of about two dozen cost-saving ideas. More than half were not being seriously considered because there wasn’t time to implement the proposals, which included consolidating schools, or because the ideas would require union concessions, which union leaders had indicated they would not support.

Among the ideas considered but tabled: Saving $5.3 million by consolidating high schools and middle schools; $1.4 million by cutting three school days; and $450,000 by shifting some health care costs to employees.

Still being considered: Saving $4 million by reducing art, music and physical education; $1 million by eliminating co-curricular sports and charging students fees to play; $800,000 in administrative cuts; $446,000 by closing Peaks and Cliff Island schools; $334,000 by eliminating world languages in elementary schools; and up to $541,000 by offering a $10,000 retirement incentive to employees over 62 years old.

“I think there was a general desire to try to limit those cuts at the classroom level,” Botana said. But most feasible cuts are to programming, including savings of $452,000 by increasing elementary class sizes; $387,000 by reducing electives at middle schools; and $118,000 by eliminating school resource officers.

MAYOR, OTHERS ENDORSE FULL PROPOSAL

Several board members said at a workshop Tuesday that they did not support any cuts just yet. Mayor Ethan Strimling and Emily Figdor of the Protect our Neighborhood Schools also endorsed the full $113 million proposal.

“The situation this year is really dire, and I think the community is really unprepared for the kind of cuts some school board members are talking about,” said Figdor, who led the group that advocated for the successful $64 million bond to renovate four elementary schools.

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 – have left the city with $3.4 million less than expected, while fixed costs such as salaries and benefits are increasing. Botana said the valuation factor alone led to a $1.5 million drop in state funding.

Figdor said that’s one element that’s unclear to the community – if the valuation is going up, why can’t the increase in city revenue be used for schools?

“How can this be when our city is thriving so much?” she asked. “If we have the budget to give away handouts to developers without necessarily getting benefits to Portland, how can we be doing that at the expense of major cutbacks and consolidation in our schools?”

Mavodones said it’s a “fallacy” on the part of the state to think that because valuation is increasing, the city has more money.

“We can’t afford any more,” Mavodones said Wednesday. “It’s just one more instance where the state is kicking the can down to the local level. It happens to municipalities around the state, which are forced to either raise taxes or end programs. I advocated over the years for more state funding, but the state continues to find ways to pass these costs – these reductions – down to the local level.”

‘WHAT’S IN THE BEST INTEREST’ OF KIDS

The state’s funding formula also determines what percentage of “essential programs and services” the state will pay, and what percentage the local community will pay. For poorer communities, such as Lewiston, the state pays for 80 percent, while in Cape Elizabeth, the state only pays for 7.5 percent.

Most districts’ school budgets are larger than the state’s assessment of how much essential programs and services should cost, and those communities pick up the additional funding locally.

In Portland last year, the $16.5 million that the city received from the state represented roughly 16 percent of the district’s budget.

Strimling told the school board Tuesday that he wants the board to present a budget that members think delivers the best education for students.

School board member Marnie Morrione agreed.

Making cuts before it even gets to the city finance committee would be a mistake, she said.

“It’s up to the council members to determine the taxes. I know we have to be responsible. However, right now my primary concern is doing what’s in the best interest of the students,” Morrione said. “We should go to joint finance and say this is what we’d like to support students. If they come back and say that’s too high … then we can chip away. To chip away this much, this soon? It just doesn’t make any sense right now.”

“I think this is very short-sighted,” said board member Sarah Thompson as she looked over the proposed cuts. She noted that the city used to pay for crossing guards and only recently shifted those costs to the district.

“This is ridiculous,” she said about cutting the guards, and also the school resource officers “in light of everything going on in this country.”

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: noelinmaine

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