Proposed Portland school budget requires 6.3% tax increase

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Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana has proposed a $125.8 million school budget for fiscal year 2022, which aims to promote more equity in the Portland Public Schools.

The proposed budget is up $5.9 million from the current budget of $119.9 million, with $3 million of the increase coming from maintaining current programs and services as well as increased costs for salaries, benefits and debt service. Investments toward equity make up the remaining $2.9 million of the increase.

According to a press release from Tess Nacelewicz, communications coordinator for Portland Public Schools, the proposed budget will increase the overall school tax rate by 74 cents, or 6.3 percent year-over-year. For a home valued at $250,000, that would mean a tax increase of $183.94 per year, or just over $15 per month.

The release also said the district will receive more than $947,000 less than this year in state Essential Program and Services (EPS) funding, largely due to the city’s increase in valuation.

The budget also assumes all students will return to in-person instruction in the fall.

The largest area of equity investment in the proposal comes from a more-than-$1 million investment in the district’s Lau plan, which ensures proper identification, programming, and language services for English Language Learner students.

Additionally, nearly $400,000 is proposed for creating more career opportunities for staff members of color, compensating staff members for identity-based work they perform, and establishing a human resources position to recruit and support diversity in hiring.

Other new areas of funding related to equity include implementing the School Board’s new Sexual Harrassment and Discrimination policy, and increasing special education services.

Botana presented his proposal to the School Board at its March 16 meeting. The School Finance Committee will vote to recommend a final budget to the board at its April 1 meeting.

The proposed budget must also be approved by the City Council before going to a voter referendum in June.

Portland Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana.

High schools to adopt hybrid model next month

Portland’s three public high schools plan to return students to in-person learning two days per week next month, as other school officials continue to explore ways to bring back younger students for more in-person learning before the end of the school year.

High school principals sent letters to parents and posted videos March 22 announcing that beginning Monday, April 12, all city high school students will be able to return for two days of in-person instruction per week on a hybrid schedule.

Several parents of sophomores, juniors, and seniors have been pushing for city high schools to adopt the hybrid format because their children are the only Portland students who have been learning entirely remotely for more than a year. Administrators previously proposed a plan that would bring back high school students for approximately two hours of additional in-person time per week.

Students who ask to remain in a remote-only format will be allowed to do so, according to the March 22 letter to parents from Deering High School administrators.

“We know this change will bring challenges, but the thought of our Rams back here, enjoying our beautiful campus on sunny spring days fills us with joy and hope,” it stated.

Prior to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s announcement last week that it would reduce the physical distancing guidelines for children in schools from 6 feet to 3 feet, Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana, Assistant Superintendent Aaron Townsend, and Assistant Superintendent Malea Nalli made presentations to the School Board March 16 on the School Department’s plans.

Botana acknowledged the ability for Maine teachers to be vaccinated, lower virus case counts compared to December and January, and a 9 percent increase in student absences across the district as reasons for reevaluating the learning format.

A document provided by the schools outlining reopening plans emphasized the challenges to providing more in-person time. At the elementary and middle school levels, it said, any district-wide changes will be made after April vacation.

The “significant layers of protection” required by public health officials to return to school, Botana said at last week’s meeting, make changes more difficult to implement.

“We also recognize that our community, by and large, has given us support and grace for the better part of the year,” he said. “It is clear that as (it is in) so many communities across the country, that grace is wearing thin and the expectation that we will return to more traditional hours and days is growing.”

— Elizabeth Clemente