Some say proposed Portland school budget isn’t affordable

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PORTLAND — Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana is not shy about saying that his proposed $113 million budget would “require a significant commitment from the Portland community.”

During his fiscal 2019 budget presentation to the School Board last week, he said the spending measure, which represents an increase of more than $7 million, is needed to follow up on “the commitment we’ve made to preserve and improve our schools.”

But not everyone is on board with the proposal, which would require a 9 percent increase in property taxes. The skeptics include School Board member Laurie Davis, who is also a member of the Finance Committee.

Davis said there wasn’t much chance for School Board members to absorb the budget details during their March 6 meeting, but her first impression is that Botana is seeking “a very steep increase in taxes,” which she doesn’t believe is affordable.

According to Botana, the proposed school budget would add about $238 to the annual tax bill of a home valued at $240,000.

But Davis said personal income over the past several years has not kept pace with the tax increase Botana is calling for and therefore, “this is an ask I’ll have to be extremely thoughtful about. It’s hard because I respectfully disagree.”

Davis and others are also concerned about the capital debt that the School Department will owe on the $64 million, four-school bond that was approved by voters last November. Debt service will begin on that borrowing in 2020.

In all, she said, the Finance Committee would work over the next month or so to “do its due diligence and work with the City Council to (create) a budget that’s reasonable and acceptable.”

She said Botana made a “conscious decision” to seek a significant increase in school spending. “I approach budgeting differently and I’m not sure I would have made the same choice,” she said.

Davis said there is always tension between “what we’d like to have and what we can afford. It’s never really enough.” For her, she said, the budget should “strengthen our core (programs) and support innovation,” but ultimately be affordable.

Her overall concern is getting to a school budget amount that “can pass” and one that won’t “become a political football” tossed between the School Board and the City Council.

“We’ve been working for quite a while to collaboratively and jointly steward our joint resources,” and she would hate to see that camaraderie fall by the wayside, she said.

The ultimate question, Davis said, is “What do we need? What’s our income? and How can we apportion it? We’ll have to make some hard choices because we just can’t do it all.”

But, she added, “That doesn’t mean (educational) quality has to suffer.”

School Board member Jenna Vendil heads the Finance Committee, but could not be reached for comment prior to The Forecaster’s deadline.

However, Vendil last week said it would be important for School Board members to attend a joint meeting of the board and City Council finance committees on March 22 to supply what she called “collective input.”

School Board members made no comment on Botana’s proposed budget during last week’s meeting, voting unanimously to send it to the Finance Committee.

But longtime fiscal watchdog and city resident Steven Scharf argued that “this budget is not anywhere near ready for referral. There’s no way this city will accept a 9 percent increase” in property taxes.

In his budget message to the School Board, Botana said the biggest factor influencing his spending request is a need “to level the opportunity and achievement gap for students from poverty and students of color.”

He also said the School Department is starting out with a $3.5 million budget hole due to a significant drop in state aid to education. “We are facing a challenging budget year,” Botana told the board.

“Portland (is) at a crossroads (and) we will be asking our community to make a clear choice: Do we continue to support great schools and invest in making them even better? Or, do we allow the weakening of our school system by failing to sustain the level of investment needed to maintain quality schools?” he said.

Following its joint meeting with city councilors next week, the School Board’s Finance Committee is scheduled to hold a public hearing and workshop at 6 p.m. on March 27 at the superintendent’s office.

The full School Board would then hold a first reading on a recommended budget April 3, with a final vote slated for a special meeting at 7 p.m. April 10.

In other action, the School Board is expected to appoint Emily Figdor, spokeswoman for Protect Our Neighborhood Schools, to the four-school building committee when it meets on March 20.

That appointment would follow the resignation of original appointee Jennifer Hunter. This week Botana said that Hunter resigned from the Advisory Building Committee, which has not yet met, due to “other commitments.”

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

Portland School Board member Laurie Davis is one of those questioning whether Superintendent Xavier Botana’s proposed $113 million budget is affordable. “This is an ask I’ll have to be extremely thoughtful about,” she said.