No tax increase if Portland school budget referendum passes

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Portland residents will vote July 14 on a proposed school budget of $113.5 million that will not require any increase in taxes. 

The budget proposal was approved June 15 by the City Council. It represents a 2 percent increase over the School Department’s fiscal year 2020 budget, largely due to contractual cost-of-living adjustments, positions added during the current year, and adjustments to utilities and insurance.

The budget has gone through a series of cuts from an earlier $122 million proposal that included investments aimed at narrowing the achievement gap for minority and economically disadvantaged students. The city manager, mayor, and council requested a budget that would avoid any school-side tax-rate increase, because many Portland taxpayers have been hurt financially by fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. 

The original budget included an elementary school reconfiguration plan that would have saved $1.3 million through the elimination of 20 full-time teaching positions. The superintendent dropped the proposal when the pandemic hit because he felt the community input necessary for such a major change would not be possible.

With the loss of that savings and the request not to increase taxes, many of the planned investments – such as hiring seven new teachers for English language learners – have been cut. But the board opted to keep some and find reductions elsewhere in the budget.

Investments that remain include two new pre-kindergarten classrooms, an autism spectrum disorder program for high school students, and math and literacy curriculum expansion. The budget also retains $665,000 for positions that had been covered by federal funding at schools with high numbers of disadvantaged students. 

Cuts in the budget include fourth- and fifth-grade Spanish classes, $140,000 from athletics and co-curricular activities, and enrollment-based staffing adjustments. 

While the bottom line has been approved by the council and the School Board, the superintendent has been tasked with finding approximately $400,000 in additional cuts from several line items: the district’s COVID-19 contingency fund, contracted professional and tech services, employee training and development, building repair and maintenance, staff travel, and software licenses, or by renegotiating cost-of-living adjustments with unions.