Two members of the City Council’s finance committee said Thursday that the Portland school budget is still too high, urging the school board to provide more detailed information on programming and staffing to argue its case for the $112 million proposed budget.

“Portland supports education, but for me, I think the overall tax rate is too high,” said finance committee Chairman Nick Mavodones.

Fellow committee member Justin Costa, who recently served on the school board, said he specifically wanted to know more about staffing levels and whether that was an area that could be trimmed.

Mayor Ethan Strimling agreed the board should bring forward more details before the finance committee vote, but said he continued to support the superintendent’s budget. He also said he wanted the finance committee to look at the entire budget for possible cuts, not just the school budget

“Let’s have a conversation about the entire budget, not just half the budget,” he said. To get to a certain tax rate, he said, “what are cuts that would have to happen on both sides?”

The Portland school board approved the $111.8 million budget on April 12. The council’s finance committee will vote on it May 9 before sending it to the full council. The council will vote on the budget figure to send to voters on the June ballot.

But it’s a contentious budget, and there is the possibility that councilors will disagree on whether to support the full $112 million budget. They can only vote on the total amount, not make line-item decisions about what to cut.

Committee members said Thursday that it would take six council votes to cut the school budget amount – forcing the school board to find more reductions – and five council votes to send their budget figure recommendation to the voters.

At a brief public hearing Thursday, all but one of the handful of speakers urged the committee to support the budget, which already reflects about $1.4 million trimmed from the superintendent’s original proposal.

“This is about our values as a city,” said John Thibodeau, urging support for the budget. “My sense and my belief is this is a city that really values education. It’s the core of a great city.

“This is a reasonable thing to do and it’s the right thing to do and we need to do it.”

The $112 million budget reflects a 6.4 percent increase in the school portion of the tax rate – which is about half the municipal budget – and would add $163.20 to the tax bill of the average home in Portland, which is valued at about $240,000.

When the proposed $247 million city budget is combined with the most recent proposed school budget, residents could see a roughly 4.5 percent increase in their property taxes, from $21.65 per $1,000 of assessed value to $22.62. That would add about $250 to the annual tax bill of a home assessed at $250,000.

City officials haven’t specified how low they want that tax rate to go, but school officials spelled out several scenarios:

To get the budget down to a 4.5 percent increase, the district would have to make $1.6 million in cuts – equal to about 25 staff positions. Those, Superintendent Xavier Botana said, would likely be many of the cuts discussed and rejected by the school board, such as cutting elementary school world languages, increasing elementary school class size, eliminating some middle school electives, making $400,000 in high school cuts, and eliminating eight crossing guard and two school resource officer positions – police officers stationed at Portland and Deering high schools.

Cutting language programs at Ocean Avenue Elementary School would mean jeopardizing the International Baccalaureate program there.

Lowering the tax rate further, he said, would require cutting $2 million to get to a 4 percent increase, $2.5 million to a 3.5 percent increase, and $2.8 million to get to a 3 percent increase. The school budget has a bigger tax impact than expected because the district got less state subsidy than anticipated. 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 – left the district with $3.4 million less in state subsidy than expected, while fixed costs such as salaries and benefits are increasing.

For example, under the initial budget, salaries increased $2.4 million – but $1.9 million of that was because of contractual obligations for current positions. Benefits increased $2.2 million, or 12.4 percent, and 91 percent of that was from projected increases in health insurance.

City Councilor Kim Cook, noting the impact of changes in the state funding formula, said city and school officials need to work with the state delegation to prevent ongoing budget problems.

“We have a problem this year. If things stay the same, we’ll have significant problems next year and the year after that,” Cook said. “We are disagreeing amongst ourselves as to what the right tax increase is … but at some point we need to work together to get a better deal out of Augusta. Let’s not forget that next year, we really need to come together to work on that.”

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

[email protected]

Twitter: noelinmaine

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under:

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.