City seeks more cuts to proposed Portland school budget 

School finance committee seeks reductions from negotiated contracts

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The Portland School Board Finance Committee is recommending renegotiation of teacher and other staff contracts to reduce the proposed school budget without having to cut services that were previously covered by federal grants for high-poverty schools. 

The recommendation comes after City Manager Jon Jennings asked the School Department to reduce its budget to avoid a tax increase at a time when the coronavirus pandemic is taking a financial toll on the city and its residents. Jennings previously requested a 3 percent cap on the tax increase.

In response, Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana and his staff cut $2 million from their original budget, which was proposed March 10. A new $119.9 million budget proposal that would keep the tax rate unchanged leaves out several previously proposed investments.

The Finance Committee indicated one of those, a $665,000 investment in math coaches that had been covered by lost federal Title I funding, was a priority and should be put back into the budget. It would be offset by $100,000 reductions in athletics and co-curriculars and a $100,000 reduction to cost-of-living adjustments for non-bargained contracts and non-represented staff. 

This brought the budget to $120.3 million, which would require a 0.5 percent property tax-rate increase.

But at a joint meeting of the city and school finance committees May 12, after the city finance director presented projections of city revenue loss, Mayor Kate Snyder and city finance committee members requested that the district reduce the budget further to get it down to a zero-percent tax increase. In addition they asked the schools to draw up a budget with no increase over the current year. 

When some School Board members pushed back against the request, City Councilor Tae Chong said that with cuts happening across all city departments, asking the schools to remain at zero percent increase shows the value that the councilors place in the schools. 

Reducing the presented budget to a zero percent tax increase would require a $472,000 cut, while reducing it to the current year’s budget would require a $2.9 million cut. 

The fiscal year 2020 budget was $117.4 million, which represented a 6.2 percent increase over the previous year and required a 4.9 percent tax rate increase. If the fiscal year 2021 budget is not approved by the council or by Portland voters, the existing budget would remain in effect.

At a school Finance Committee meeting May 18, Botana said since the committee had already communicated that keeping services that were previously funded through Title 1 grants was a priority, his team sought an alternate way to cut $472,000 from the budget.

He proposed increasing class sizes to 25 students, up from 22, for grades 1-3, which would allow a reduction of six teaching positions and produce savings of $390,000. Additional reductions of $100,000 would come from academics, central office, and contractual budgets. 

He said he would write a letter to union representatives requesting that they come back to the negotiating table to consider reducing or eliminating their scheduled cost-of-living increases and step increases in their collective bargaining agreements. 

“I don’t arrive here lightly,” Botana said. “I want to be very clear that I don’t think that those cost-of-living adjustments are undeserved. … What has changed is the world around us, as this year has evolved. And so, where a 2 1/2 percent increase in cost of living and a step seemed like the right thing to do, it is now very difficult for us to do.” 

He also presented several options for cuts that could be mixed and matched to bring the the budget down to the current level if necessary, including more cuts to athletics and co-curriculars at high schools and middle schools; to elementary art, music, and physical education; and to the “middle school model,” which provides additional prep time for middle school teachers, among other things. 

During the public comment period, concerns were raised about increasing class sizes and cutting increases in teacher pay. It was suggested the cuts be found in areas that do not directly affect students, such as central office staffing and $1.5 million in contracted services. 

“It seems like this budget is being balanced on the backs of students and teachers,” said Ericka Lee-Winship, social studies teacher at Portland High School. “I would really urge us to look for cuts that are further away from kids and that don’t directly impact the work that happens with kids every day. I think central office really just needs to go a little deeper; I don’t see much on the table there and it just doesn’t sit right with me as a parent and a taxpayer.” 

Kristen Tedesco, a second-grade teacher at Lyseth Elementary, said she was concerned about the possibility of having to teach 25 young students through remote learning if that is necessary.

Others suggested increased class sizes would have detrimental impact on immigrant students, and physical distancing, if necessary, would be difficult with more students in the classrooms.

The discussion comes after a series of cuts have already been made to Botana’s original $122.3 million budget proposal, which included investments toward shrinking the achievement gap that exists for disadvantaged students.

For example, in 2019, the gap in English Language Arts proficiency between white students and minorities according to state assessments was 27.2 percentage points, compared to the state average of 10.3 percentage points. 

Botana’s proposal included a school reconfiguration scheme and the elimination of elementary Spanish instruction, both controversial, as ways to reduce costs and allow for more investments toward special education, English language learner, and pre-kindergarten services as well as general curriculum expansion. 

With the city’s COVID-19 emergency declaration and the effects it would have on the ability for the community to provide input, Botana dropped the reconfiguration proposal. Doing so meant deferring some of the planned new investments in ELL and special ed services and adult education to stay within the requested 3-percent increase. But some of the investments, including expanded pre-K services and curriculum expansion, remained. 

The committee proposed and rejected several alternatives to increasing class sizes and cutting teacher pay increases. One of the options discussed May 18 was dropping a curriculum expansion in phonics and illustrative math, but there was little support for that. 

“Everywhere we turn is an equally difficult choice to make,” committee Chair Anna Trevorrow said. “… Every direction is the wrong direction.”

Ultimately the committee recommended seeking $472,000 in reductions first through renegotiating the cost-of-living adjustments from union employees, and if that fails, through cuts to athletics and co-curricular activities.

After the vote, Botana said he stands by his recommendation to increase class size. 

The School Board was scheduled to have a first reading of the budget recommended by the committee and hold a public hearing on May 19. Another joint finance committee meeting is scheduled with the city for Thursday May 21, with another school Finance Committee meeting to immediately follow that meeting.

The School Board is scheduled to vote on the budget at a special meeting on Tuesday, May 26.