Supporters urge Portland councilors to support full school budget proposal

Randy Billings, Portland Press Herald, Maine
·5 min read

May 4—Dozens of Portland school officials and parents on Monday urged the City Council to send the school's $125.2 million budget to voters without requiring any additional cuts that would reduce investments in making public education more equitable for students.

The hearing comes after the council's Finance Committee voted last week to require the Portland Board of Public Education to reduce its proposed $5.3 million budget increase by $1.5 million. The council will hold another hearing before voting next Monday.

Board Chair Emily Figdor said the school budget seeks to address longstanding racial and economic inequities that have been laid bare by the coronavirus pandemic, which is disproportionately impacting people of color and people with low incomes. That same disparity, she said, has been exacerbated for students in the district, who have faced hurdles to online learning and are falling behind in their education.

"The huge achievement and opportunity gaps in our city are unacceptable," Figdor said. "And we know we can't keep doing the same thing and expecting different results."

The proposed school budget would result in a 64 cent, or 5.5 percent increase, in the schools portion of the property tax rate, which is currently $11.69 per $1,000 of valuation. Meanwhile, the municipal budget, which used federal recovery money to replace pandemic revenue losses, calls for a 4 percent reduction in its side of the mil rate.

If approved as proposed, the combined budgets would result in a nearly 1 percent increase in property taxes, which would result in a $54 increase on a home with a tax-assessed value of $300,000.

Figdor said that the budget would implement critical investments outlined in the Portland Promise, the school district's 2017 strategic plan to address inequity. And it would come at a time when the city and the nation are focused on correcting systemic racism that has been laid bare by the killing of Black people by police.

"Portland is a city that says it values its rich diversity," Figdor said. "But the killing of George Floyd and protests for racial justice last summer turned a spotlight on the stark inequities throughout the nation, including right here in our own city."

More than half — $2.9 million — of the proposed school budget increase is aimed at improving equity for students who are English language learners, have disabilities or are economically disadvantaged. Equity investments include more than $1 million for English language learners, $414,000 in additional support for students with autism and added Functional Life Skills staffing, and $400,000 for staff diversity and inclusion efforts, including recruitment.

The remaining increase is to maintain existing programs, pay for additional debt and honor contractual pay increases.

Last week, the council's Finance Committee ordered a reduction of $1.48 million, which would reduce the property tax impact to 4.4 percent.

All but one of the 30 people who spoke during the 90-minute public hearing Monday called on the council to support the school board's budget without the reduction. Most said that supporting the school budget would allow the city to take a concrete step toward addressing racial inequities.

"I think this is how we do the work," said Jenn Boggs, whose daughter attends Longfellow Elementary School.

Kimberly Simmons, who said she has done anti-harassment work with the schools, said that city schools remain vulnerable to being sued over violations to Title IX, a civil rights law prohibiting sex-based discrimination. She pushed back against concerns expressed by councilors that city residents would not support greater investments in their schools.

"I also reject the narrative that people don't want to pay more taxes and don't expect to pay more taxes," she said.

Bayside resident Jim Hall was the only person to speak against the tax increase, saying that the school board failed to prioritize its spending, putting the council in "an uncomfortable position."

"There are actually people here who fall on the other side of this question," Hall said. "Now is not the time to add a whole new spending category."

With the help of federal recovery funds, City Manager Jon Jennings proposed a city budget that would reduce property taxes by 4 percent, while beginning to restore cuts made because of the pandemic last year. Jennings used $8.5 million from the American Rescue Plan to replace lost revenue. That's only a fraction of the $48 million the city is expected to receive over the next two years. Though city officials are still awaiting guidance on how that funding can be used, replacing revenue lost during the pandemic has already been identified as an allowable use.

Were it not for federal funding, Jennings said his budget would have resulted in a 4 percent increase in taxes.

The schools, meanwhile, have already received $24.4 million in federal funding relating to the coronavirus, said Figdor, the board chair.

Figdor said in a budget memo to councilors that money is being used to fund 53 new positions for one year, facility improvements, childcare programs, technology, substitute teachers, a "robust summer school program" to reconnect students to school, and purchasing additional tents and furniture.

Figdor said the schools will continue to use $1.3 million to pay for 20 custodians, but those positions will have to be added back onto the local tax rate in the coming years.

The schools expect to receive an additional $18 million from the most recent federal relief package, which will be available though the summer of 2024, Figdor said. That money is also targeted toward summer school programs in the coming years, while some of it will be used to reopen schools in this fall.

But several school supporters argued that using one-time federal funding to make needed equity investments would send the wrong message to students and the community.

"All these things require a sustainable source of funding," West End resident Lauren Hickey said. "In order to put our money where our mouth is in terms of equity, we need to approve this budget and put it out for referendum."