The Portland Phoenix

Another Viewpoint: ‘No’ on Question 5 preserves checks and balances on city spending

The Portland Public Schools Central Office on Cumberland Avenue. (Portland Phoenix/Jordan Bailey)

A recent op-ed by School Board Superintendent Xavier Botana published Oct. 14 in the Portland Press Herald argues that Question 5 will let the “Portland school board do its job.”

But the School Board is, and has been, doing its job for the 56 years this writer has lived in Portland. New schools have been built; old schools are continually being renovated; thousands of foreign students with dozens of different foreign language backgrounds have been assimilated into our schools and into our larger society; a new high school with innovative curricular programs has been successfully established; new courses using the rapidly changing new technologies of the day have been (and no doubt will continue to be) developed. These are the jobs of the School Board. They can and will continue.

The City of Portland’s job is spelled out in the Maine Constitution. Art. VIII, part 1, Sec. 1, of the Constitution imposes a duty on the Legislature “…to require, the several towns to make suitable provision, at their own expense, for the support and maintenance of public schools….” 

In order to discharge this duty the Legislature has clothed towns/municipalities with the power to levy property taxes. Maine law (Title 36, MRSA 501) defines a municipality to include cities and towns. Municipal officers are defined to include a mayor, councilors and/or alderman of cities and the members of the select board of towns.     

Maine law (Title 36, MRSA 505 and 507) make clear that at any municipal meeting at which the governing body of a city or town votes to raise a property tax, the property tax bill “…must indicate the percentage of property taxes distributed to education.”   

No Maine constitutional or statutory provision clothes a Board of Public Education, with power to determine and impose (on its own) a property tax levy. Only the municipal officers of a general-purpose government (a city or town) may determine and impose a property tax.  

The existing Portland City Charter, faithful to Maine’s constitutional mandate, and mindful of the myriad dimensions of the School Board’s job, is committed to a robust process of annual budget review (see Charter, Article III, Section 5).  

The five paragraphs in this section lay out an elaborate process of review and discussion of the Superintendent’s and the School Board’s proposed budget. The budget each year must be laid out in detail. The time frame and format for review and discussion is measured in months, not days or weeks. The Superintendent, the Board, the City Manager, the Council’s Finance Committee (and ultimately the full Council) and staff experts are all privy to the materials and participants in the discussion.  

This writer’s experience as a member of the Council’s Finance Committee for three years and chair for one year, is that the meetings were more numerous than the two required. They were long, wide-ranging and well attended. All sides with respect to each budget item were heard before tentative and then final decisions were made. I’m told this experience is widely shared by others who have similarly served.  

Finally, one should note that the existing Charter, in deference to the judgments of the School Board, provides that if the total budget request of the Board is to be reduced, six members (a two-thirds majority) of the Council must see this as necessary to meet the city’s fiscal needs.

In short, the existing Charter budget processes and deference to the School Board embodies the best of what a checks and balances system of government can offer. A ‘NO’ vote guarantees that these valuable processes, this deference, will not be lost. 

Orlando Delogu is a retired law professor and former city councilor.

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