Portland's nearly $111M school budget proposal in hands of voters

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PORTLAND — Residents will vote on a $110.6 million fiscal year 2019 school budget when they go to the polls June 12.

The budget represents an increase in spending of about $4.8 million, or 4.6 percent, and would increase property taxes, just on the school side, by 53 cents per $1,000 of valuation.

Although overall spending has increased, the amount appearing on the ballot is still significantly less than what Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana originally sought.

Through an often-contentious process over the past couple months, both the School Board and City Council Finance Committees worked to trim Botana’s original $113 million budget to get to an amount they felt voters would support.

And, at meetings last week, both the full City Council and the School Board approved the $110.6 million figure, which will now go before voters.

“I hope that voters will support the budget that was approved by the board (on May 17),” Botana said this week.

“While it is significantly lower than what we asked for in March, a no vote moves us backward and we have important work that needs to be done to make sure that we are ready for the coming school year.”

Overall, he called the budget process “a long and difficult” one, but also said he felt compelled to bring to the fore “the fact that (there are) complex forces at play that will continue to challenge us (financially).”

“The reductions that were put in place will have an impact on our day-to-day operations,” Botana added. “We reduced over $1 million in administrative supports that will impact our ability to … advance our academic goals.”

In addition, under the proposed budget, “Our students will go to school two fewer days, some staff will see furloughs and reductions in pay and we will have fewer electives in our middle schools,” he said.

However, Botana also said there is an “upside,” adding that the budget, if passed, would allow “(us) to continue our focus on the whole student.”

“We will continue to build (on our) ability to meet the social-emotional needs of our students (and) ensure that more students have a meaningful connection to a caring adult through our youth mentoring and extended learning opportunities and increase in social workers at schools.”

Moving forward, Botana said, “(We’ll have) to figure out how (to) support the schools that we have and improve them. I am (also) looking forward to organizing our discussions on the district’s school configuration and overall footprint.”

While members of the citizen’s advocacy group Protect Our Neighborhood Schools argued vigorously before both the School Board and the City Council to keep Botana’s original budget intact, the organization is encouraging residents to support the proposed school budget, spokeswoman Emily Figdor said.

“We’re very disappointed that the City Council cut (millions) from the school budget, but we’re encouraging people to vote for (it) on June 12, because this is the best budget we’re going to get from this council,” she said.

“Portland’s school are at a crossroads, because the state is shifting millions from Portland to poorer districts,” Figdor said. Meanwhile “Portland already spends the least per student of any of our neighboring communities, except for Westbrook.”

Figdor said Protect Our Neighborhood Schools is concerned that the “City Council hasn’t been willing to step up and prioritize our schools. With Portland booming, we think the city should invest in maintaining and strengthening our schools.”

“We don’t have a good explanation as to why there isn’t more revenue available for the schools,” she added. “We hope the City Council can come to better understand the Portland Promise, the district’s five-year plan, (and) build support for it into the future.”

Figdor called the Portland Promise “an exciting and visionary plan,” and said “we’re optimistic that the City Council would be more aligned with the School Board if they better understood the plan.”

However, while school advocates called for higher school spending, members of the City Council said throughout that they felt the budget as originally proposed would increase the tax rate too much.

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