Portland school budget proposal starts with 5% hike to nearly $133M

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The Portland School Board Finance Committee held a second review Monday of a proposed $132.9 million school budget for the 2023 fiscal year, took public comment, and discussed potential amendments.

A joint session of the School Board and City Council finance committees is set for Thursday, March 24.

Portland Public Schools logoThe proposed budget is up about 5.1 percent from this year’s $126.5 million, but less than the increase from 2021 to 2022, which was about 5.5 percent, according to Botana’s first budget presentation on March 15.

If approved as presented, the budget will require a tax increase of 28 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, or 4.1 percent. For a home with the city’s median value of $365,000, that will mean an annual property tax increase of just over $100, according to Portland Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Kathie Winchenbach.

The budget has a focus on teaching and learning, realized mostly by adding additional staff to support elementary school libraries, expansion of the pre-kindergarten program, language support at Portland Arts and Technology High School, and a new Wabanaki studies coordinator.

School Board Chair Emily Figdor previously raised concerns about how the budget would look because of concerns about the continuing pandemic and rising inflation. But she said she is optimistic and the budget appears to be “in a much better place” than she anticipated.

Figdor on Monday said she would support amending the proposed budget to add social workers for the Peaks and Cliff Island schools and Rowe Elementary, and one more English Language Learning teacher to serve both Lyseth and Deering.

Social worker positions and English language development programming are among notable items that were left out of the initial proposal.

Figdor estimated this would add nearly $220,000 to the budget and said she would be in favor of either that or using external federal funding – a suggestion made in the proposal for priority items that didn’t make the initial budget.

Acknowledging that there are more needs than what can be included in the budget, Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana suggested using a “lagging process” to determine what remaining items need funding and applying federal funds that become available over time.

“I think we should revisit that list of additional investments that did not get into this budget and consider whether we wanted to use any of our federal funding to support advancing some of that work,” Botana said.

The only concern about using those funds, he explained, is that they have a limited life span.

Discussion of Figdor’s possible amendment was continued to the joint finance meeting on March 24.

In addition to committee discussion, two of seven attendees at the meeting shared public comments.

Steven Scharf of Brackett Street said next year’s budget should actually be less than this year’s due to an expected decline in enrollment, which has been discussed in prior school board meetings. 

A similar question was posed at the first public hearing on the budget, asking why more social workers would be needed if PPS is expecting fewer students, to which Botana responded that the needs of students are much greater than they have been in previous years.

The other commenter, John Thibodeau of Clemson Street, said he supports the proposed budget and thanked the committee and staff for their efforts to improve equity.

A formal first reading of the budget is set for the School Board meeting on March 29, followed by a vote on April 5.