A handful of people came out Tuesday for a public hearing on Portland’s proposed $117.8 million school budget, all but one of them urging the school board’s finance committee to add positions or expand programs.

Several speakers were from Peaks Island, urging the committee to reinstate the island school’s pre-kindergarten program. Pre-K was added to the small school last year as a pilot project, but the proposed budget cut the program because it needed another full-time staff position to operate.

The cut surprised parents on the island, and child care providers who said they stopped providing pre-K services when the school began the program.

“There was an expectation it would continue,” said resident Matt Reading, who said his son had been expecting to attend the pre-K program in the fall.

After the public hearing, Superintendent Xavier Botana said he planned to add a position to the proposed budget, at a cost of about $40,000, to continue the Peaks Island pre-K program.

The proposed budget is a 6.5 percent increase over the current $110.6 million budget. Overall, the budget increases the number of district staff by 53 full-time equivalent positions, to 1,172. Salaries and benefits total about $93 million, accounting for about 77 percent of the budget.

Sue Olafson, the head of the Portland teacher’s union, said she hoped the committee would consider adding some staff positions.

“I’m also concerned no new librarians were added to the budget,” she said, noting that some schools have to close libraries for two or three days a week because of staffing shortages.

She also urged them to consider positions to enhance the district’s music program, saying it only gets “low support.”

It includes about $1.8 million in new programs known as the “Portland Promise.” That includes expanding the pre-kindergarten program, adding a math coach and a science, technology, engineering and math coordinator and reorganizing services for students with special behavioral and emotional needs.

Portland resident Steven Scharf said the budget was “significantly overinflated.”

“I’m not asking you to cut the budget,” Scharf said. “I’m asking you to look for reductions in the increase.”

The superintendent’s proposed budget for the year starting July 1 would increase the school portion of the tax rate by 5.4 percent – about the same increase approved by voters last year. It would add 60 cents to the school portion of the tax rate for a total of $11.74, and it would be an increase of $144 per year for a home assessed at $240,000, which the city says is the average value in Portland.

The pre-K expansion would add 13.5 positions and two classrooms, for $560,615. The reorganization of services for students with behavioral issues, now known as the Breathe program, would add 31 positions, mostly education technicians and largely covered by MaineCare, would cost the district $530,370. Curriculum changes as part of the core instruction focus will add 1.5 positions, at a cost of $276,250.

The finance committees of the school board and the city council will hold a joint meeting on Wednesday night at City Hall to discuss the budget. The Portland School Board will hold a public hearing on the budget proposal on Tuesday, April 2, at 7 p.m. in the City Hall council chambers.

 

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