Portland school budget talks start with 9 percent tax increase

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PORTLAND — Superintendent Xavier Botana has proposed a Portland Public Schools budget of $113 million for the 2019 fiscal year, which represents an increase in spending of $7.6 million.

Botana was scheduled to outline his budget to the School Board at a meeting held Tuesday, March 6, after The Forecaster’s deadline.

On Monday Botana said he recognizes the budget proposal “is a significant ask,” but also said “we are at a crossroads as a community. Do we want to continue to invest in our schools or (face) big cuts?” he asked.

He said the school district is set to lose $3.5 million in state aid to education in the upcoming fiscal year and could see another $4 to $5 million loss in 2020.

In fact, according to Botana, Portland “is getting to the point where we will become a minimum receiver” in terms of state subsidies.

“We’re at the point where we need to calibrate our expectations. I feel we have an outstanding school district, but we need investment to be even better,” he said.

Botana said his proposed budget would lead to a 9 percent tax increase, or about $20 a month for a home valued at $240,000. He said in the past decade the School Department has been “exemplary” in terms of keeping tax increases to a minimum.

“We’ve had the smallest percentage increase of any neighboring district, other than Westbrook. The Portland schools have been a responsible taxing body (and this new spending) is needed for us to be world class.”

“Over the coming weeks, I expect we’ll have lots of conversations about specific aspects” of this budget, Botana said, especially in terms of the number of schools in the district and the amount of enrollment.

But, he said, “We can make a strong data case” for the amount of spending being requested.

He said the biggest factor influencing his budget request is that “significant work needs to be done to level the opportunity and achievement gap for students from poverty and students of color.”

In breaking down the $7.6 million increase in spending, Botana said $2 million can be attributed to debt service on the new Hall Elementary School and another $1.4 million would go toward implementing the School Department’s new comprehensive plan.

The majority of the new spending, $5.6 million, he said, would cover projected salary and benefit increases and the remaining $300,000 is for other cost increases, including for technology and supplies.

In his budget message to the School Board, Botana also noted the public’s generosity in approving a $64 million bond this past November that will pay for significant upgrades at four of the city’s elementary schools.

He said debt service on that bond wouldn’t begin until 2020, but acknowledged the capital spending “does add additional pressure” on the operational budget.

In his proposed budget, new positions are limited, according to Botana, and would include a part-time volunteer coordinator at King Middle School and moving the social-emotional learning director’s salary from a grant to the general fund.

Botana said the School Board’s Finance Committee would meet on March 8 and 13. He anticipates it could hold a public hearing on the proposed budget on March 15, with the whole board holding a first reading on March 20.

He said the final budget vote would be on March 27 and then the school budget would be sent to the City Council for its review and input. The council can make adjustments to the school budget after it’s sent to them and before it goes out for a public vote in June.

In a letter to the community sent out Monday, Botana his budget is designed to ensure the School Department is “achieving (our) goals and sustaining quality schools.” To do that, he said, will “require a significant commitment from the Portland community.”

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

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