The City Council voted on May 16 to approve in full the Portland Board of Public Education’s recommended $133.1 million FY23 school budget, turning down amendments to reduce it. The budget will now go to city voters on June 14.
The theme of the budget for the 2022-2023 school year is: “Keeping the focus on teaching and learning.” Most council members said they agreed with the educational goals of the Board’s budget, which balances significant fiscal constraints – including a $2.6 million reduction in state education aid – with maintaining current programs and services and covering increased costs for salaries, benefits and debt service. The budget also maintains the equity investments the district has made over the past five years to support students experiencing opportunity gaps: students who are English language learners (ELL), have special educational needs, are economically disadvantaged or have otherwise been marginalized in society.
The budget allows the district to stay on course with the Portland Promise, the district’s strategic plan. The goals of the Portland Promise are Achievement, Whole Student and People – all of which are centered by the key fourth goal of Equity.
“We are grateful for the City Council’s and the mayor’s support for this budget,” said Superintendent Xavier Botana. “The FY23 budget is a responsible one that maintains and maximizes the work we’ve started, while recognizing the economic reality that everyone is facing now with inflation at historic levels. It will allow us not to backslide on our Portland Promise investments next school year, and ensure that our teachers and staff are able to fully focus on teaching and learning. Our goal is to build our capacity to strengthen core instruction for all students and make our schools more safe and equitable.”
Adam Burk, chair of the Board’s Finance Committee, said, “The City Council has upheld that the Board-approved budget is the right investment in our students, staff, and community at this moment. In this way, it has validated that the budget is diligent, focused on the right investments, and uses appropriate budgeting principles.”
The budget proposal is up $6.6 million over this year’s FY22 budget of $126.5 million. It calls for a 4.1 percent increase in the school portion of the tax rate, reflecting a 5.2 percent increase in expenditures. The increase includes few new investments and most of those have their own revenue sources that don’t increase the overall budget.
The budget requires an increased investment of $4.8 million from local taxpayers. To achieve that, it would add 28 cents to the school portion of the city’s tax rate, for a total school tax rate of $7.05 per $1,000 valuation. The school budget would increase the annual tax bill of the median family home in Portland (valued at $365,000) by $102.20, less than $9 per month.
The City Council’s Finance Committee had recommended reducing by $1 million the local revenue needed to cover the Board’s recommended budget. While committee members were supportive of the Board’s budget goals, they were concerned about a potential $2 million city revenue shortfall and the impact of budget increases on taxpayers. The Committee suggested the Board consider using COVID-related funds to cover expenditures.
However, Board members said using one-time federal COVID relief money to address long-term needs would be unsustainable, creating a “cliff” that could result in steeper tax increases in coming years. Board Chair Emily Figdor reminded councilors at the May 16 meeting that they had described using city COVID funds for such purposes as “bad budgeting.”
“The same principles that apply to your budget should apply to our budget as well,” she said.
In addition to the Council not approving the $1 million revenue reduction in the school budget, an amendment proposed by Mayor Kate Snyder for a lesser reduction of $750,000 rather than the $1 million also did not succeed. Another amendment by Councilor Tae Chong to cut several million dollars from the budget to reduce its tax impact to zero failed. In the end, the Council voted 6-2 to support the Board’s budget as recommended.
Figdor said, “The proceedings last night and in the weeks leading up to the vote exposed the deep flaws in our current Charter’s requirement that the City Council approve the school budget. It was truly an exasperating process, but I’m grateful to the councilors who worked to make the best out of the situation and supported the school budget. I look forward to building support in the coming months for the Charter Commission's amendment to end the City Council’s review of the school budget, so we can have more student-centered budgets and a more constructive relationship with the City Council.”
The next and final step in the FY 23 budget process will be the budget referendum vote on June 14. Budget details can be found on the district’s website here.
Burk said, “Appropriately, the opportunity to vote on the school budget is June 14th, the last day of school – or before if you vote by absentee ballot. Thanks in advance to Portland voters for your support for our schools and, most importantly, our students and staff.”
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. 51 percent of the district’s students are white and 49 percent are students of color. Approximately half of PPS students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals.