Apr. 30—A city finance committee unanimously approved a $1.48 million cut Thursday to the amount of taxes to be raised in the Portland school budget, a move that was later criticized by school board members and prompted an apology from one city councilor on the committee.
"I know it definitely didn't turn out like many of us hoped it would and I contributed to that," Councilor April Fournier said in a video posted on Instagram Friday. "In hindsight, I definitely could have taken a different route in making sure it was very clear I still support our budget as presented without reductions."
Fournier spoke in favor of the equity investments in the school board's $125.2 million budget Thursday night at the finance committee meeting, though she also expressed some concerns about the impact to taxpayers. She made a motion to pass the budget as is, but voiced no objection to an amendment by Councilor Nicholas Mavodones to reduce the amount to be raised by taxes by $1.48 million. The amended motion passed the committee 3-0.
The proposed reduction to the budget, which will be voted on by the full council on May 10, would retain a $4.76 million increase in the school portion of the tax levy. A first read of the budget by the council will take place Monday and a public hearing will take place at the May 10 meeting.
The previous increase of $6.24 million would have resulted in a 5.5 percent increase in the school portion of the tax rate. That number would be reduced to about 4 percent if the council follows the committee's recommendation. Taken in combination with a proposed 4 percent decrease in the city portion of the tax rate there would be no overall tax increase.
School board Chair Emily Figdor pushed back on the committee's recommendation Friday, saying it would cut more than half of the district's planned investments to advance equity.
"It's so disappointing," Figdor said in an email. "If we're serious as a community about closing the huge opportunity gaps in our city between students of color and white students — which have only grown during the pandemic — we can't keep doing the same thing and expecting different results. We can't on one hand decry and on the other hand ignore the deep inequities in our schools. We need to put our money where our mouth is."
Board member Aura Russell-Bedder posted a video on her Facebook page also saying the vote was disappointing. "I'm really pretty angry today," Russell-Bedder said in the video. She said the budget is "where the rubber meets the road" in fighting systemic racism. "I think our council members saying they're fully supportive of the work and policies the school board is doing, but 'We want a zero percent tax increase,' I have a problem with that," Russell-Bedder said.
The budget, which was approved 7-1 by the school board April 13, features $2.9 million in new investments for equity-focused initiatives, including $1 million to invest in the district's Lau plan, which supports English language learners; $217,000 to expand the pre-K program with two additional classrooms and transportation; $305,000 in enhanced special education services; and $400,000 for human resources to recruit and support a diverse staff.
At Thursday's meeting, Fournier said that as an early childhood special educator she knows the impact of inconsistency on vulnerable students, though she is also concerned about the impact of a city revaluation on taxpayers. "I certainly don't disagree with my fellow councilors in that we do want to try and reduce the burden on our most vulnerable citizens," Fournier said. "We don't want to increase that, but we're trying to balance that with how do we continue our investments in those most vulnerable who have been so impacted by COVID and years of not investing in the ELL and special education services?"
Fournier did not respond to phone calls or an email Friday. In her video she said she got flustered and was focused on moving the budget to the full council for a discussion during Thursday's vote. "I really want to reinforce that this budget to me is really a very bold vision and a much needed investment in equity and I'm sorry if that didn't come across in the way I voted," Fournier said.
Some councilors have suggested the district use federal coronavirus relief dollars to make the investments without relying on increased tax revenue, though school officials have said that approach would not be sustainable.
"I'm hopeful the School Board will be able to find a way to strategically use available American Rescue Plan (ARP) federal funds this year to achieve their goals," said Councilor Mark Dion, a member of the finance committee, in a news release Friday. "Combined with the municipal budget's use of ARP funds and the 4 percent decrease to funds to be raised by local taxes on the city side, we can avoid any tax rate increase."
"It's really, really important to be clear the finance committee action last night was not about cutting the budget," said Mayor Kate Snyder in an interview. "It was about reducing the amount of funds to be raised by local property tax with the suggestion that $1.4 million be replaced with the federal ARP funding."
But Figdor and Superintendent Xavier Botana have said that approach is short-sighted. "We will continue to work with the Council to help them understand why using federal funds for what are envisioned to be ongoing expenditures will create a funding gap when the federal funds end," Botana said in an email.
He said the district is already using federal funds to pay for 25 custodians and has moved multiple allowable one-time investments into federal funds such as summer school, professional development and technology purchases.
If the district is required to move the $1.48 million to federal funds, that would create almost $3 million, or about a 3 percent tax increase, that would need to be moved back into the general fund in the future. Annual cost increases usually run between 2 and 3 percent and because of the city's increasing valuation, the district is also expecting to continue to see a decrease in state revenues.
"Unlike the city, our revenue will not come back at some point in the future," Botana said. "Our revenue sources are limited to state funding and local tax revenue. So, absent tax increases, we will not be able to maintain our current level of services, let alone make the continued investments that we need to make to become the truly equitable school system that everyone agrees we want to be."