The City Council voted on May 15 to approve the Portland Board of Public Education’s recommended $143.8 million FY24 school budget. The budget will now go to city voters on June 13.
The budget builds off a theme of “Strengthening Academics, Behavioral Health and Operational Systems.” This theme summarizes the district’s three key priorities in the budget for the 2023-2024 school year: Maintaining the commitment to the Portland Promise goals of Achievement, Whole Student and People – all intertwined with the fourth central goal of Equity; being responsive to the needs of all students, especially those newly learning English; and improving operational effectiveness in such areas as finance and human resources.
“We are grateful for the City Council’s and the mayor’s support for this budget,” said Board Chair Sarah Lentz and Interim Co-Superintendents Melea Nalli and Aaron Townsend in a joint statement. “Our FY24 school budget is responsive to the incredible, vast, and often conflicting needs of the Portland Public Schools at a time of daunting budget challenges. We feel strongly that this budget is a fair and responsible one given the current circumstances.”
Mayor Kate Snyder praised the collaborative way the district and Board worked with councilors to craft a FY24 budget that meets student and staff needs while being cognizant of taxpayers.
“Thank you to the School Board, thank you to school leadership, thank you to my colleagues on the Council and also city leadership for this work,” Snyder said. “Our job is to hopefully deliver a school budget that supports kids and adults and gets it right for taxpayers.”
The budget reinvests in core operations such as finance and human resources, while also investing in student-facing staff to support all of PPS students, including many newly arrived multi-language learners. The budget also endeavors to anticipate and plan for the FY25 budget, when the district will no longer have access to federal COVID money and will likely face decreased funding from the state level. This budget does all that while simultaneously being mindful of the tax burden on Portland residents in a year when inflation continues to be high.
The $143.8 million budget for FY24 is up $10.7 million over this year’s budget of $133.1 million. It calls for a 5.7 percent increase in the school portion of the tax rate. The budget would raise the overall school tax rate by 40 cents, for a total rate of approximately $7.45 per $1,000 valuation. It would increase the annual tax bill for the median family home in Portland (valued at $375,000) by $150 per year, or $12.50 per month.
The budget that the Council approved is the result of many months of hard work on the part of the Board and district and school leaders and staff. It reflects many difficult choices informed by voices across the community through public hearings, emails, and conversations with the mayor and city councilors. It upholds many needs and requests, but numerous investments were not able to be included.
The district faced formidable fiscal challenges as it began the FY24 budget process. Inflation and other factors resulted in high costs. Coupled with an expected $2.4 million loss in state subsidy and other revenue adjustments, it would have required an 8.7 percent tax increase for a “rollover budget” in FY24. Adding in other important programmatic budget needs/requests would have required a tax rate increase of 15.5 percent.
The process to get down to the 5.7 percent tax rate increase was thorough and demanding.
The district learned March 28 that the state had miscalculated its education aid to local school districts and that the Portland Public Schools’ FY24 adjusted subsidy would be $3.6 million more than expected. The initial budget proposal from the co-superintendents on March 14 was built on information from the state that the district would receive $2.4 million less in state aid than in FY23, so the additional net of $1.2 million more in state subsidy was very welcome news. In addition, the district’s health insurance rates were recently confirmed as lower than budgeted, resulting in $400,000 in savings.
The budget uses more than $1 million of these unanticipated funds to reduce the impact on local taxpayers.
The budget uses the remainder of the unanticipated new revenues to preserve core programming and enable flexibility in managing the challenging budget outlook for the FY25 budget. That upcoming budget year is expected to be particularly difficult because the district will no longer have available ESSERF (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund) money granted to school districts during the COVID pandemic (even though the effects of the pandemic continue to remain) and could have less state education aid due to the city’s continued rising property valuations. To help prepare for FY25, the Board and district leadership are beginning work to initiate significant cost-saving structural changes while continuing to advocate at the state level for adjustments to the state school funding formula.
The additional unanticipated revenues for FY24 allowed for a number of revenue and expenditure adjustments to the budget originally proposed. For example, the budget returns community coordinator positions – community coordinators manage the volunteer program at local schools – to the local budget, and returns a number of core services that had been shifted to ESSERF in earlier versions of the budget to the local budget for FY24. These include math coaches, elementary and high school classroom teaching positions, high school youth development positions, and adding a literacy teacher leader and the equivalent of 1.5 positions to human resources, as well as a grant accountant to further support improvements to district operations and finance.
Such local budget adjustments served to free up roughly $2.8 million of resources in remaining ESSERF funds to invest in key budget priorities for next year. The revised ESSERF budget contains additional investments to advance elements of the Portland Promise strategic plan in the next year. These include additional resources for summer learning, curriculum materials, and staffing.
The budget also includes additional investments to be able to address the influx of newly arriving students with intensive language development needs. These investments include adding additional language capacity at the school and district level as well as providing for additional instructional capacity to serve students, including a dual language learner teacher at the pre-kindergarten level. In addition, the budget contains funds to support non-ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) educators to acquire their ESOL credential as the district takes steps towards supporting all PPS educators to have the skills and knowledge to differentiate for multilingual learners.
Other key highlights of the budget include increased investments in district employees that total just over $4 million. To help attract and retain staff during the nationwide labor shortage and ensure hard-working employees can meet the inflation-driven costs they face every day, the Board settled contracts this past fall with bargaining units representing teachers and educational technicians that included wage increases.
Higher operational costs also are part of the budget. Due to staffing turnover and shortages and systemic problems with the payroll system, the district had difficulties beginning last fall in paying our more than 1,500 employees in a complete and timely way. While most of the immediate problems have been resolved, the district continues to work on a long-term solution by outsourcing payroll, a move recommended by the recent Spinglass audit. The budget includes about $775,000 to cover the costs of hiring payroll processor ADP and increasing staff in the finance and human resources departments – also recommended in the audit – as well as for shoring up transportation, facilities, and school meal services.
The budget also uses ESSERF money to add a few one-year-only positions to address class size challenges at a few grade levels in a few elementary schools to maintain class-size ratios in grades K-3. It also includes additional resources for the equivalent of 1.5 new teaching positions at Portland Adult Education (PAE) to respond to significant demand for programming. PAE may choose to use some of that funding in the short term to provide more compensation to its hourly teachers for the preparation work they do outside of the classroom.
This budget also reflects an increase of $2 million for out-of-district special education costs for students whose specific IEP needs the district is unable to meet in its schools. These costs are required by law.
It also includes debt service costs for the renovations to the four elementary schools in the Buildings for our Future bond approved by Portland voters in 2017. Lyseth Elementary was renovated in 2020 and renovations to a second school – Presumpscot – will be completed this spring. The remaining two schools – Reiche and Longfellow – are less than a year from completion. Through careful financing and use of reserves, the district has been able to defer the impact of debt payments for these projects over time, but this budget includes a $2.2 million increase in debt service for FY24.
In summary, the budget invests in all Portland Public Schools students, including newly arriving multilingual learners, provides fair compensation for the district’s hardworking staff and shores up core operations, including finance and human resources, while being mindful of taxpayers.
“While there still are significant needs not fully resourced in this budget, it accomplishes some very important goals and we’re confident that it is the best we can do under current fiscal circumstances,” Lentz and the co-superintendents said. “We ask Portland voters to support this budget at the polls on June 13. The Portland community has told us they believe strongly in the importance of public education and also in the overall goal of the Portland Promise to make sure that all our students are prepared and empowered for college and career. This budget reflects those values, and we encourage voters to approve it.”
The Portland Public Schools is Maine’s largest school district, with approximately 6,500 students, and is also the most diverse. About one-third of the district’s students come from homes where languages other than English are spoken—a total of more than 50 languages. 49.8 percent of the district’s students are white and 50.2 percent are students of color. Approximately half of PPS students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals.