Superintendent James Tager speaks during a debate over school funding in a contentious school board meeting on Wednesday. It was Tager's first school board meeting  as superintendent. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

The Bangor School Committee voted 4-3 on Wednesday to give half a million dollars in newly received state funds to the city for property tax relief after a contentious debate.

The school committee received the $1.7 million in new funds after Gov. Janet Mills signed a $8.5 billion two-year budget on July 1 that increased state funding to public education to 55 percent. Of that, $314,000 will go toward hiring staff and about $863,000 will go to the department’s capital reserve fund.

Four staff members will be hired with the new funds: a districtwide social worker, a pre-K teacher, a kindergarten teacher and a fourth role that could be a pre-K or kindergarten teacher.

Officials said the money would decrease the mill rate by 20 cents, a drop of about $35 a year for someone owning a home in Bangor valued at $175,000.

The new school money will alleviate the decreased tax burden for homeowners amid a property boom and decline in Bangor businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic. Residential properties now account for 53 percent of the city’s aggregate property value, up from 51 percent last year.

A budget approved by the City Council on June 28 set the mill rate at $22.90. City Manager Cathy Conlow said that $1.2 million in new revenue sharing dollars would also drop the mill rate, though it remains unclear what the final rate will be with the school department vote.

Other councilors, including Warren Caruso, said sending money back to the city for tax relief was common practice for the school department. He said “giving back” to residents was not a bad thing, especially for residents who don’t have children in the school system. Committee members Susan Sorg, Timothy Surrette and Chair Carin Sychterz also voted for the proposal.

Tager noted that the tax decrease would assist many people in Bangor living paycheck to paycheck. Bangor’s median household income is $46,625, 20 percent below the median income in Maine.

“As taxes go up, so do rents,” Tager said.

But Vice Chair Marwa Hassanien and members John Hiatt and Clare Mundell strongly condemned using the money for tax relief — they said that there were several initiatives across the district that could use the funding, from an equality audit in the aftermath of racist incidents at Bangor High School to free meals.

Opponents also felt it was unusual for a school department to relinquish funds slated for education.

“There are just so many things we can do,” Mundell said. “I feel like it’s a lost opportunity.”

At one point, Hassanien, who was attending over Zoom, said that Conlow had her hand raised to speak and that she wanted to offer background on the budget process. Sychterz said that the board had decided not to have public comment on the matter beyond its regular public comment period and that she did not want to break precedent.

It was the first school board meeting for Superintendent James Tager, who started the job on July 1.