PORTLAND, Maine — Mayor Michael Brennan and Portland Public Schools Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk had strong words for Gov. Paul LePage on Monday morning as they called for city voters to back their proposed school budget at the polls Tuesday and rally the public behind the duo’s lobbying efforts in Augusta.
“Balancing the [state] budget on the backs of our students, on the backs of our teachers and on the backs of our administrators is not ‘putting students first,’ which he espouses,” Caulk said of LePage and a $1 million curtailment in state aid the Portland schools saw during the current fiscal year. “His actions run counter to that.”
The governor’s office defended its education spending, with a spokeswoman pointing out that even after the midyear cuts the LePage administration has spent millions more on local schools statewide than its predecessor.
Surrounded by students and teachers at East End Community School Brennan and Caulk
urged city residents to vote in favor of a $96.36 million fiscal year 2014 school spending plan Tuesday. The event attracted a heavy media turnout.
After calling for applause for Caulk and the teachers at the school, Brennan asked the students to “clap for the governor so he at some point hears what a great school sounds like.”
The mayor and superintendent held the line Monday in what’s become an adversarial relationship between representatives of Maine’s largest city and the governor’s office, tying a controversial slate of 40 local school job cuts to what they described as inadequate state funding and cumbersome LePage-backed initiatives.
Caulk in previous budget announcements has lamented the cuts as well as a LePage proposal to shift teacher pensions from the state to local governments — a move that would lump another $1.3 million in retirement burdens onto the Portland school budget if approved by the Legislature — and criticized the governor’s recently unveiled school grading system as oversimplified.
“The amount of uncertainty created by this governor and the Legislature is unprecedented,” Brennan said Monday.
Brennan has clashed with LePage more directly on the subject of charter schools, with the governor supporting the specialized schools and the mayor taking an outspoken position against them, saying a proposed charter school in Portland would sap existing public schools in the city of as much as $600,000 in tuition payments.
LePage at the time called Brennan’s resistance to charter schools, which included a since-denied request for a state investigation into the Portland-based Baxter Academy for Technology and Science, “stunningly cynical and shortsighted.”
Adrienne Bennett, spokeswoman for LePage’s office, told the BDN Monday that Caulk’s characterization that the governor balanced the budget “on the backs of students” is “simply a misleading statement.”
“Two years ago, this administration made it a priority to invest an additional $63 million into education,” Bennett wrote in an email. “Though we have had to make some cuts … this year general purpose aid to schools is still higher than it was before Gov. LePage took office.”
Bennett provided data showing that the previous governor, Democrat John Baldacci, budgeted $872 million for general purpose aid for education in fiscal year 2011, while LePage has budgeted $889 million, $895 million and $894 million in his first three years in office.
Going back to the Baldacci administration, Portland has seen its state education subsidy drop from $17.6 million in 2010 to $14 million in the current fiscal year, with flat funding proposed for the district in the coming fiscal year.
Caulk proposes maintaining or increasing funding for prekindergarten, world languages, physical education, art, music and co-curricular activity programs districtwide. Those investments help build a strong structural foundation to build the district back up on when resources and staffing levels can be restored, he said.
“While I’m disappointed that we made some difficult decisions and some difficult staffing decisions, I’m encouraged that we’re making investments in key areas that will keep Portland not only one of the best school districts in the state, but also the country,” Brennan said.
Brennan said that after voters finishing weighing in at the polls Tuesday, which are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. at 11 locations across the city, Portland residents should rally behind his efforts to increase state funding for education.
“Work with me and work with the superintendent so we can continue to go up to Augusta to seek more resources,” Brennan said Monday.
The mayor also urged residents to vote not to continue using annual public referendums to approve the school budgets in the city, a step mandated by the state government during Baldacci’s 2008 statewide school consolidation initiative.
Brennan said that Portland’s annual school budget had historically been approved by its board of education and city council, and the additional referendum votes cost the city between $13,000 and $15,000 per vote. Last year, the mayor said less than 10 percent of the city’s population turned out to the polls for the school budget referendum.
Seth Koenig can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @SethKoenig.