Superintendent's Notebook: Portland school budget is more than the bottom line

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It’s school budget time. Informed that we were facing a drastic cut of nearly $3 million in state education aid to the Portland Public Schools, my team and I have spent a lot of time crunching numbers. As we worked, however, we didn’t see just the numerals on the balance sheet. We also saw the faces of the students, staff and city taxpayers those sums will impact.

Crafting a school budget is a balancing act. I believe that the new school budget proposal that I presented to the Portland Board of Public Education on March 8 achieves such a balance for all stakeholders in Portland, Maine’s largest school district.

My proposed $103.7 million school budget for the 2016-2017 school year puts student learning first, invests in staff and respects the support of city residents. It also keeps the Portland Public Schools on the strong positive trajectory that the district has set for itself.

First, a big thank you to the taxpayers of the city of Portland, who so willingly support the city’s public schools every year. This budget is cognizant of you. It’s lean; it contains an expenditure increase of about $948,000, or less than 1 percent.

However, combined with the projected large $2.7 million loss in state revenue – which shifts the burden directly onto local taxpayers – the school portion of Portland’s property tax rate would increase by 46 cents or 4.5 percent, adding $46 to an annual tax bill per $100,000 of value.

The good news is that since I presented my budget proposal to the board, state lawmakers have voted to allocate additional education funding to Maine communities. If Gov. LePage approves the measure – which is expected as I write this – that should help decrease that shortfall and give us a brighter budget picture.

However, please remember that a school budget is about more than just the bottom line. It represents our community’s values and its hopes and dreams for the future of Portland’s children and also of the city itself. After all, Portland’s youth are its future leaders, job creators and workforce.

The path to success for Portland students begins early in life. That is why we have a pre-kindergarten program. This budget calls for a continued expansion of that program, adding another class so that more families can take advantage of this valuable learning experience for their children. Even in this difficult budget time, we still need to grow and support our initiatives that increase student achievement.

To address the projected shortfall in state aid, we have proposed cuts – but very strategic ones that minimize the negative impact on teaching and learning.

Also, with invaluable input from our building leaders and Central Office team, we call for realigning and repurposing some resources to realize efficiencies and savings and continue to have close-to-ideal class sizes.

Personnel costs make up the largest portion of any school budget – in our case, 79 percent. But recent budgets have stabilized those costs and personnel costs in fiscal year 2017 only increase by about $710,000, or less than 1 percent.

During budget time, school districts look to do more with less while at the same time honoring our nation’s values when it comes to public education, engendered by our founding fathers.

Thomas Jefferson said our government couldn’t function properly “unless the citizens are educated sufficiently to enable them to exercise oversight. It is therefore imperative that the nation see to it that a suitable education be provided for all its citizens.”

Public education is the cornerstone of what has made America great. That thought needs to figure significantly in every school budget review.

Portland’s School Board and then the City Council will consider the budget and act on it over the coming weeks before it goes to voters May 10.

We want to hear from you during the process, which will include opportunities for public comment. The voices of our parents, staff and community members will help pass a budget that ensures all Portland students receive the high quality education they need to prepare them for success in the 21st century.

To learn more, go to the “Budget” link on our website, portlandschools.org.

Jeanne Crocker is interim superintendent of the Portland Public Schools. She can be reached at superintendent@portlandschools.org.

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