BANGOR, Maine — Despite a papier-mache protest, the City Council approved in a 7-1 vote Wednesday the Bangor School Committee’s $43.9 million budget proposal for the 2015-2016 school year.
Under state law, the proposal moves to the voters for final approval in a public referendum June 9.
According to school officials, the budget would add 8 cents to the local property tax rate, down from the initial figure presented to the council of 11 cents.
That could go lower if the Legislature provides additional funding to education above the governor’s recommended budget.
Because the Legislature has yet to approve a budget, Superintendent Betsy Webb said she is not sure whether extra state funds may be coming.
In preparation for a possible increase in state funding, the council approved a resolution dedicating the first $274,972 to tax reduction. That would cut the anticipated impact on the mill rate from 8 cents to zero.
Anything over that would go into a capital reserve fund for minor capital improvements, facility upgrades, emergency repairs or to reduce future mill rate increases that may result from declining revenues, according to the resolution.
That resolution came at the recommendation of the school committee. Councilor Ben Sprague, who sponsored it at the council, said it was specifically designed to eliminate the need for a second public referendum in the event the state provides additional money after the June 9 deadline.
The proposed school budget is based on Gov. Paul LePage’s budget, which includes an extra $408,813 in state funding for the school system this year. That’s up 2.5 percent from the prior year, though it does not make up for the $1.2 million cut between the 2009-2010 fiscal year and the 2014-2015 school year.
The updated budget calls for a 1.7 increase in spending, down from a 1.9 percent increase initially presented to the council. City officials said the changes were the result of a more than $80,000 reduction in personnel spending.
In all, 64 percent of the proposed budget would go for instruction of varying types with 2.47 percent for school system administration and 5.49 percent for school administration.
A total of 80 percent of the budget is for personnel expenses, according to Webb.
“To be honest, all schools are near 80 percent,” she said. “It’s almost a benchmark that you push for because the single biggest factor in improving student achievement is the quality of the teacher — always has been, always will be.”
Over the past seven years, Webb told the council, the school budget has increased on average by 0.8 percent.
According to Webb, over the past six years, the school system’s graduation rate has climbed from 71 to 87 percent. Its dropout rate has fallen from 6.7 to 2.4 percent, according to school officials, and standardized test scores are in the top 10 percent of the state. Enrollment is approximately 3,800, she said Thursday, down from the 3,900 she estimated when introducing the budget in March.
Webb cautioned when introducing the budget to the school committee that, with annual budget increases falling below inflation, those academic successes “can’t go on forever.” The school committee approved the budget April 8.
The proposed budget has incited an unusual war of political signs — without much policy debate — in the public right of way between Park and Harlow streets near Bangor City Hall. It began May 7 with the placement of a giant papier-mache pig urging residents to vote against the budget.
That political sign was met with a few small signs until budget supporters eventually emerged with their own sculpture — a pile of brown dung strategically placed behind the big. Sticking out of the fake dung was a sign that read “Cut The Crap, Not The Budget. Vote Yes.”
The dung demonstration since has been removed from the site, but additional smaller pigs had been placed at the site as of Wednesday, encouraging residents to oppose the budget.
The debate led several city councilors to come to defense of the school budget Wednesday. Sprague pointed out that the annual cost per pupil in Bangor was more than $1,000 less than the state average.
“I want to affirm that I believe the Bangor School Department is the greatest asset that our community has and one of the top draw for people moving to Bangor,” he said.
Meanwhile, Councilor Gibran Graham said he found it “a little embarrassing sometimes to be in a community that wants to argue about the cost of education,” and Councilor Sean Faircloth called for a more data-driven approach to discussing the budget to “avoid some of the more hot rhetoric.”
With Councilor Patricia Blanchette absent, only Councilor Pauline Civiello opposed the budget. She called for use of university students as instructors in extracurricular activities to save taxpayer money, saying some taxpayers are one more property tax away from losing their homes.
Despite similar signs opposing the school budget in the same location last year, the previous school budget referendum passed by a vote of 2,051 in favor and 1,081 against.
Follow Evan Belanger on Twitter at @evanbelanger.