Portland School Board faces budget pressure from all sides

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PORTLAND — The School Board’s Finance Committee can expect significant push back this week from parents and others who don’t want to see reductions in the proposed fiscal year 2019 budget of $113 million.

Meanwhile, at a joint meeting last week, city councilors told the board a 9 percent increase in spending proposed by Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana is not sustainable.

At the March 22 meeting, City Councilor Nick Mavodones, who is the city’s Finance Committee chairman, said the issue is “about what this community can afford. I know some people (will frame this) as that we don’t support education, but that’s completely untrue.”

As elected officials, Mavodones said, “We have a fiduciary responsibility to all of the taxpayers of Portland. There has to be a balance, an equilibrium, between advocacy (for the schools) and our ability to pay.”

He was backed by Councilors Kimberly Cook, Justin Costa, Belinda Ray and Spencer Thibodeau. “The question is not framed correctly,” Ray said. “It should not be: ‘Do we want to continue to support great schools?’ but ‘how do we do that with the resources we have?'”

However, Mayor Ethan Strimling said, “for me the schools come first and I don’t want to create a line in the sand. You should bring us the budget you believe will create the best schools in the city.”

He added that Botana is “right in challenging this community to have a conversation about what we expect our schools to be. How do we have the best schools? That’s what I want. Sometimes on the City Council we need to be willing to ask for more revenue.”

Costa, a former School Board member, said he understands the challenges the board is facing. “Education is the No. 1 important thing,” he said, “but we also have other responsibilities and other things we have to do.”

In the end, Costa said what he doesn’t want to see is the debate over the amount of school spending become “about political points scored.”

But, that’s the direction the discussion seems to be headed.

The advocacy group Protect our Neighborhood Schools put out a call for people to turn up at Tuesday’s School Board Finance Committee meeting to protest any cuts to the budget Botana proposed.

The four-member school Finance Committee was expected to vote on a recommended budget package it would then forward to the full School Board, which would hold a first reading and public hearing at 7 p.m. April 3.

The Finance Committee has already looked at several proposals for reducing the overall spending request, including a $3.9 million cut. In a story published March 22, the Portland Press Herald said that could lead to reducing art, music and physical education, instituting a pay-to-play fee system for athletics and other extracurriculars and eliminating world language offerings at the elementary schools.

But Botana told the Press Herald the “most feasible cuts” would likely have to be in programming, including a possible $452,000, which would increase elementary class sizes; $387,000 to reduce the number of electives at the city’s middle schools; and $118,000 to eliminate the school resource officer positions.

It’s statements like these that many city councilors objected to during last week’s joint meeting, with Cook saying that framing the budget debate as “an all or nothing proposition is overly divisive and (creates) a false alternative.”

But in a Facebook post Tuesday, Emily Figdor, spokeswoman for Protect our Neighborhood Schools, said this is “a critical time for the city’s schools and the future of education in Portland,” adding that “(we’re) at a real crossroads.”

“City officials are considering a wide range of cuts to reduce the school budget … (and) are expected to make some combination of these cuts, unless they hear clearly from the community that we don’t want to backtrack on our schools,” Figdor said in the post.

“We have the lowest school tax rate of all surrounding communities other than Westbrook. In addition, we’ve increased our spending on schools the least of neighboring districts since fiscal year 2010 – again with the exception of Westbrook,” she added.

“We cannot let our quality schools slip away,” Figdor concluded. “Families will not stay in Portland if our schools deteriorate. Right now is the time to speak out in support of our schools.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

At a joint meeting last week, a majority of the Portland City Council told members of the School Board that a proposed budget of $113 million isn’t sustainable.