Portland school board approves spending extra state funds on tax relief, custodians and debt service
The Portland school board approved a plan Tuesday for spending an extra $6.2 million in state funding on tax relief, the cost of custodians currently being paid for with federal relief dollars and to create a debt service reserve fund.
The plan, which passed on a 7-0 vote, is expected to go to the City Council on July 19 and could result in a zero percent tax increase in the combined city and school budget if approved.
“We are so fortunate to be in this place because the governor has finally honored the state’s obligation to meet the 55 percent requirement (for state funding) and tonight we’re able to take this step to put Portland public schools on better financial footing in the future,” school board Chair Emily Figdor said.
The additional funding adds to $17.8 million in general purpose aid from the state in Portland’s $125.2 million school budget. It follows approval from the Maine Legislature and Gov. Janet Mills last week on a new $8.77 billion biennial budget that will fund K-12 education statewide at 55 percent for the first time since voters approved the measure in a ballot question in 2004.
The plan approved by the board specifically includes spending $1.49 million on tax relief, which would result in a zero percent tax increase this year in the combined city and school budget; $1.3 million to cover the cost of custodial staff currently being paid for with federal coronavirus relief dollars but that will eventually have to be moved back into the operating budget; and $3.41 million to create a debt service relief fund.
The debt service fund would be used to offset increases in the baseline budget in future years driven by debt service for the voter-approved $64 million Buildings For Our Future bond to renovate Lyseth, Longfellow, Presumpscot and Reiche elementary schools.
Portland residents voted overwhelmingly on June 8 to pass a $125.2 million school budget for 2021-22 that includes a 5.5 percent increase in the school portion of the tax rate. Taken in combination with a 4 percent decrease in the city side of the tax rate, residents were facing a tax increase of just under 1 percent, or about $54 on a $300,000 home, in the budget approved last month. The plan put forth Tuesday would result in a zero percent tax increase, which could be welcome news for homeowners who are also facing potential changes in their tax bills due to a citywide property revaluation.
“It’s perfect timing,” board member Sarah Thompson said. “(The revaluations) arrived in the mail today. Some of us are having a little bit of a heart attack and others hopefully will be getting some relief. But I think it’s perfect timing for our community.”
The board also discussed but did not take action on bids for renovations on Presumpscot Elementary School, the last of the four elementary renovation projects under the Buildings For Our Future bond to be put out to bid. Last month the board voted to accept a bid for renovations on Reiche at $4.8 million under budget. The winning Presumpscot bid, meanwhile, is about $4.5 million over the construction budget of $10.2 million.
Mark Lee, principal and chief executive officer for Harriman Associates, the project architect, said the reason the Presumpscot bids came in so much over is due to new construction being a large component of the project. In particular, Lee said plumbing and heating, ventilation and air conditioning costs came in high.
The board and District Advisory Building Committee are considering several options for proceeding that include moving money from elsewhere in the four-school project to cover the construction costs at Presumpscot, making reductions to the scope of the work and rebidding the project at a later date. Several board members expressed reservations about making cuts.
“I feel like all of those items are absolute necessities for this project,” board member Aura Russell-Bedder said in response to a list of reductions for consideration. “I can’t see how this project would be an equal project in any way if we were to remove those. The thought of redesigning the plan, I’m really uncomfortable with that idea.”
Lee said it’s also possible savings could be achieved through discussions with the contractor about the construction costs.
“We don’t know what might come out of that conversation and there may be some other options that aren’t on the table,” Lee said.