The Portland City Council voted Monday to reduce the nearly $112 million school budget proposal by more than $1.1 million, forcing school leaders to meet this week to draft a list of cuts so a final spending package can be presented to voters.

Mayor Ethan Strimling opposed the school budget cuts, noting that three nearby districts that recently won national recognition spend more per pupil than Portland does. Staff file photo by Ben McCanna

School officials previously had warned that they would have to close island schools and increase class sizes, among other things, to further reduce the budget.

The school board had recommended a $111.8 million budget, but the council’s Finance Committee recommended a reduction to $110.6 million last week. Several councilors questioned whether added programs could be sustained in future budgets when the city is projected to lose state education funding and more of the budget will be needed for existing debt.

City Councilor Justin Costa, a former school board member who serves on the Finance Committee, said he felt compelled to offer his own list of possible reductions to the school budget because he didn’t think that proposals to close island schools, cut foreign languages and eliminate some middle school electives, among others, were reasonable.

Costa previously referred to Superintendent Xavier Botana’s proposals to cut elementary school world languages, increase elementary school class size, eliminate some middle school electives, make $400,000 in high school cuts, and eliminate eight crossing guard and two school resource officer positions as a “parade of horribles.”

“As someone who’s been through this, that menu of options did not make sense to me,” Costa said. “I think this amendment provides a reasonable path for us to balance the need of our school system and the broader needs of our community.”

Costa suggested reducing costs by, among other things, cutting the position of team leader for social workers districtwide, the assistant principal position at Reiche Elementary School, two adult education positions, and a two-day professional development program for middle and high school teachers to work on the new proficiency-based diplomas.

While smaller than proposed by the school board, the $110.6 million budget represents a $4.9 million, or 4.6 percent, spending increase from the current year and would result in a 5 percent increase in the school portion of the tax rate. When combined with the proposed $247 million municipal budget, residents could see a roughly 3.8 percent increase in their property taxes, from $21.65 per $1,000 of assessed value to $22.47. That would add about $196.80 to the annual tax bill of a home assessed at $240,000.

Mayor Ethan Strimling and Councilor Pious Ali opposed the school budget reduction. Strimling asked councilors to invest more in education, especially if they think the state or national governments don’t spend enough money on children. He noted that Falmouth, Yarmouth and Cape Elizabeth recently made the list of the top 500 high schools in the nation.

“They all spend more per pupil than we do,” Strimling said, noting that Portland also has more immigrants and economically disadvantaged students.

The 7-2 vote came after a 90-minute public hearing in which nearly 30 people – including school board members, teachers, administrators and parents – urged the council not to make more cuts to the budget.

Deering Street resident Michelle Greenleaf, a behavioral health professional at Riverton Elementary School, said she was surprised that the Finance Committee requested over $1.1 million in additional cuts after the superintendent’s budget received broad support at a prior hearing.

“I went home and thought there is no way they’re going to vote against it – it would be insane,” Greenleaf said. “To come back tonight and hear there is a huge cut in our future – it’s ridiculous.”

Although some councilors have criticized the school board for coming in with a spending level above the council’s guidance, school Finance Chairwoman Jenna Vendil noted that the council never provided guidance on the budget.

School board member Marnie Morrione lamented the divisive budget year. She conceded that the schools have not done enough to communicate the school’s long-term goals and strategic plans to councilors. However, she echoed the suggestion made by others during the public hearing to put the school budget before voters and let them decide if the tax increase is too high.

“We’re still standing strong on the 6.5” percent tax increase, she said. “Turn it to the voters and let the voters decide. If we’re wrong and the community doesn’t want to support a 6.5, we’ll come back. Right now we’re just talking at each other on this, not to each other.”

Ultimately, the council voted to reduce the budget. Councilor Nicholas Mavodones said the projected loss of $3.5 million in state education funding should have forced the schools “to think a little bit about how many new things we want to implement.”

Although supporters voiced strong backing for the board’s budget at city meetings, Councilor Brian Batson said he also must consider other input he has received from constituents. He cautioned against the us-versus-them dynamic currently at play.

“A vote to support this amendment is not a vote against schools,” Batson said. “And a vote not supporting the amendment is not a vote for schools necessarily.”

Councilors Belinda Ray and Spencer Thibodeau also pushed back against an email sent by Protect Our Neighborhood Schools, which has advocated for more school spending. The email juxtaposed Portland’s booming economy with the proposal to cut the school budget.

Ray noted that although the building spree has produced $1.1 million in new property taxes, increases in salaries, benefits and debt have easily eaten up that additional revenue. And Thibodeau noted the irony of the argument, since Portland’s rising property values means it gets less in state education money and has to pay more in county taxes.

“Our development – our success is hurting us,” Thibodeau said.

The school board will meet Tuesday to take up the budget reduction. Board Chairwoman Anna Trevorrow said the board will vote Thursday on reductions. The budget will then be sent back to the council for final approval so it can be presented to voters on June 12.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

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