Portland City Council gets $120M school budget

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The Portland City Council on Monday held a first reading of a proposed $119.9 million school budget.

A public hearing on the proposed budget is scheduled for the June 15 council meeting. After passage by the council, the budget must ultimately be approved in a voter referendum on July 14.

The spending plan requires no increase in the School Department’s portion of the city tax rate, but the details about how that bottom line will be reached are not final.  

At the meeting, School Board Chair Roberto Rodriguez said the proposed budget reaches a balance between educational goals and limiting the burden on the taxpayer.

Two weeks ago the board presented to the city’s finance committee a $120.3 million budget, which had been reduced from the original $122.3 million budget proposed by the superintendent of schools before the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

The finance committee and Mayor Kate Snyder requested further reductions of $472,000 to eliminate a tax increase, due to the financial impacts of the pandemic on the city and taxpayers. 

Superintendent Xavier Botana then proposed seeking to renegotiate cost-of-living adjustments for some of the district’s unionized employees to make the necessary cuts. As a backup, he proposed increasing maximum class sizes for grades 1-3 to 25 students, which would result in six fewer teaching positions and save $390,000. 

But the School Board rejected the class-size increase and additional cuts to athletics and co-curriculars at its final consideration of the budget May 26. In the 4 1/2-hour meeting, board members struggled to come up with potential cuts before the outcome of the union negotiations were known. 

If union discussions do not result in the necessary reductions, the board settled on directing Botana to make cuts to several other 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.

The board also left the door open for the superintendent to make other cuts suggested by the unions. Additional cuts are expected in budgeted cost-of-living adjustments for nonunion employees and other unions whose contracts have not yet been negotiated. 

Reductions already made in the budget include $140,000 in athletics and co-curriculars, the elimination of fourth- and fifth-grade Spanish instruction, and staffing adjustments based on enrollment. 

While many of the investments in addressing the achievement gaps that exist for disadvantaged students that were originally planned for fiscal year 2021 have been delayed, this budget retains investments in two new pre-kindergarten classes, an autism spectrum disorder program for high school students, and investments in the math and literacy curriculum.

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