Superintendent Xavier Botana presented his $132.9 million school budget proposal for the 2022-2023 school year to the Portland Board of Public Education on Tuesday, March 15. The theme of the FY23 budget is “Keeping the focus on teaching and learning.”
The budget would enable the district to stay the course on achieving its Portland Promise goals of Achievement, Whole Student and People – all of which are centered by the key fourth goal of Equity.
The budget proposal is up $6.5 million over this year’s budget of $126.5 million. It calls for a 4.1 percent increase in the school portion of the tax rate, reflecting a 5.1 percent increase in expenditures. The increase includes few new investments but maintains current programs and services and covers increased costs for salaries, benefits and debt service.
It 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 average family home in Portland (valued at $365,000) by $102, less than $9 per month.
The budget would help maintain the 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.
To advance the Portland Promise, the district’s strategic plan, nearly $4 out of every $10 the district has invested during this time has gone directly to programs and services to aid in putting these students on equal footing with their peers. The district has added multilingual social workers and counselors, behavioral health support staff and more ELL teachers, and invested in multilingual family engagement specialists and youth development staff. The district also invested in increased staff diversity and inclusion efforts, and expanded its prekindergarten program.
“It’s important not to backslide,” the superintendent said. “The focus of my FY23 budget proposal is on maintaining and maximizing the work we’ve started. This school year has been very challenging. We started the year with very ambitious goals, but as we were engulfed in the challenges of COVID, we have had to back away from many of our efforts in order to respond to immediate needs. My proposed budget will help us maintain our Portland Promise gains for the 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.”
The superintendent’s budget proposal balances fiscal constraints, including a significant reduction in state education aid, with rising costs and the need to be cognizant of taxpayers.
The state school funding formula (known as Essential Programs and Services or EPS) allocates less state funding to communities like Portland that have high property valuation, expecting those property-rich communities to be able to contribute more to local education. The district expects a reduction of $2.6 million in state aid compared to its FY22 state funding, driven for the most part by the $12 billion state valuation of Portland property values. Other factors involved in the decrease in state aid include a 1.7 percent drop in enrollment and a reduction in the number of students identified as eligible for free and reduced lunch.
Declining revenues are coupled with increasing expenses for FY23. Costs have climbed for many of the goods and services the district procures, in line with the 7 percent to 8 percent increases in the annual consumer price index for this past year.
Due to a nationwide labor shortage, the district has struggled to find workers to fill positions and has had to outsource functions such as transportation, facilities and some central office functions. These contracted services, many of which are expected to continue in FY23, come at higher costs.
The district’s People goal commits it to attracting and retaining the most talented and diverse staff. The Portland Public Schools is prioritizing compensating its hardworking People, who also are facing increased costs every day. The district recently settled a contract with the bargaining unit representing secretaries and transportation, custodial, food service, technology and maintenance workers with an increase in the range of 6 percent. It is currently negotiating with its other bargaining units, including the largest union representing teachers and specialists.
Finally, renovations are underway for the three remaining schools in the four-school Buildings for our Future bond approved by Portland voters in a 2017 referendum. 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 is seeing a significant increase in debt service for FY23.
The budget contains some essential new investments, most with their own dedicated funding streams.
The budget calls for adding one additional pre-kindergarten classroom. That’s less than the two classrooms per year added previously, but it allows the district to stay on track with its five-year kindergarten expansion plan. Career and Technical Education reserves will support staffing needed to create opportunities for Latinx students to participate in PATHS programming. The district’s Latinx students experienced higher levels of chronic absenteeism during the pandemic, and the district is taking steps to address that. The district also is restructuring its library programming to prioritize increasing the number of full-time certified librarians in elementary schools to support content-based literacy work. Hourly staffing funds will be reallocated to create a certified teacher position at Portland Adult Education.
Other additions include adding an educational technician to support the new state-mandated educational services for students with special needs until they are 22 years old; increasing the district’s social studies coordinator to a full-time position (from .8 FTE); and adjusting the compensation for the executive director of the Foundation for Portland Public Schools (FPPS) to match the compensation for comparable roles in the nonprofit sector. FPPS is a nonprofit organization that has raised more than $1 million in donations, grants, contributions and other gifts so far in FY22 to support increased educational opportunities, achievement, and equity for all Portland Public Schools students and staff.
The district is fortunate to have significant federal coronavirus-related funding. The superintendent plans to engage the Board in discussion following the budget process on how that funding potentially could be leveraged to address unmet needs not covered in his budget proposal. That funding is not renewable, so the Board would have to consider the continuing impact on the budget of any uses of the federal funds that it approves. Botana said that funding discussion may expand to a participatory budgeting process that includes the community.
The superintendent recognized that some taxpayers saw significant increases in their property taxes as a result of the city-wide property revaluation last year (for the first time in 15 years). “While this is a significant increase in the school budget this year, I will note there has been a zero percent tax rate increase in Portland for the past two years,” Botana said. “I believe that this budget proposal balances the needs of our students and staff with the challenges facing residents from all walks of life. The tax increase in my budget proposal comes in well below the consumer price index.”
Board Chair Emily Figdor encouraged the Portland community – families, staff and other city residents – to stay engaged and informed during the budget process, which culminates in a June 14 public referendum on the budget.
The Board on March 15 referred the superintendent’s proposed budget to its Finance Committee, which will have a first review of the budget on Thursday, March 17, and hold a public hearing on the budget on Monday, March 21. On April 5, the full Board will vote to recommend a budget to the City Council, which approves the bottom line of the school budget. The Council is slated to vote on the school budget on May 16 to send to voters in June.
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 60 languages. 52 percent of the district’s students are white and 48 percent are students of color. Approximately half of PPS students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals.