Portland school budget pleases councilors, despite flare-up

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A face-off between two city councilors overshadowed the financial discussion about the Portland Public Schools’ fiscal 2023 budget during a joint meeting of the School Board and City Council finance committees on March 24.

Councilor Tae Chong was cut off twice by Finance Committee Chair Mark Dion after Dion said Chong ventured too far off the subject of the meeting to question Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana about equity initiatives not included in the budget presentation.

Portland Public Schools logoChong suggested that student attendance impacts funding. After Botana said it doesn’t, Chong replied “that’s kind of hard to believe” based on prior conversations he’s had with school officials.

Grace Valenzuela, director of the School Department’s Multilingual & Multicultural Center, said Chong may have misunderstood prior conversations.

In a School Board finance committee meeting following the joint meeting, Botana repeated that attendance is not factored into funding. 

“We’re very focused on attendance, not because of the funding, but because it’s important to have kids in school. That whole line of questioning is incredibly unfortunate,” he said.

Dion also apologized to School Board members after the joint meeting.

Discussion during the joint meeting, which was attended by most city councilors and School Board members, was otherwise productive, with the majority of city councilors who spoke commending the budget work by the School Board.

Mayor Kate Snyder noted the collaboration between the School Board and City Council. “My hope is that we can use this schedule to work together to land at the very right place,” she said.

The School Board is scheduled to vote on the budget on April 5. The board and the council, which must ratify the budget, will meet again on April 11.

Members of the school finance committee continued budget conversations in a separate meeting following the joint session on March 24.

The three-member committee unanimously supported amending the budget to add more social worker positions for Rowe Elementary School and the island schools. Those positions are among items that were left out of the superintendent’s initial budget proposal with the potential to be funded at a later date from a different source.

The motion by board Chair Emily Figdor was to fund the social worker positions and two additional part-time English Language Learner support positions at Lyseth Elementary School and Deering High School using the department’s fund balance rather than adding it to the budget. The addition of those positions was estimated to cost an additional $153,000.

An additional nine staff members for Portland and Deering high schools are included in the budget and expected to be fully focused on creating more equity for students and supporting those who need it most – specifically, students in special education programs or who are English language learners.

The estimated cost of the department’s special education program is $8.3 million, or just under $45,000 per student. The entire proposed budget before amendments are factored in is $132.9 million, up 5.1 percent from this year’s 126.5 million.

Botana said in an email that the emphasis on staffing in the budget is work that the district has wanted to do for years.

More than a dozen potential candidates for School Board

Several first-time candidates are among 13 people who have taken out nomination papers for three Portland School Board seats in the June municipal election.

To get on the June 14 ballot candidates must submit nomination papers by 4:30 p.m. Monday, April 4. They must gather at least 75 signatures from registered voters for a district seat and 300 for an at-large position. 

Eight potential candidates have taken out papers to complete the six months left in two at-large terms. The District 5 seat, for a two-year term, has attracted five potential candidates.

Papers submitted by two at-large candidates were certified by the city clerk’s office as of Monday.

Richard L. Ward, 27, of Cumberland Avenue, said in an email he views himself not as a Republican or Democrat but as a “classical liberal,” although his views can be fluid and he’s open to criticism. He is active on social media and is an administrator for a Facebook group that opposes vaccination mandates.

The other qualified at-large candidate, Sarah Lentz of Arlington Street, said she shares the School Board’s focus on equity and inclusion. 

Only two of the prospective candidates have previously sought public office in the past.

Stacy Hang, of Summit Street, ran for the School Board in 2020 and won the initial popular vote, but lost in a ranked-choice runoff. Hang, a school nurse with experience in the Westbrook school system, said she has always been hopeful about her chances the second time: “I wouldn’t waste peoples’ time if I thought otherwise,” she said.

The other experienced candidate is Benjamin Grant of Catherine Street, a lawyer at McTeague Higbee who is the former chair of the Maine Democratic Party. He ran unsuccessfully for the Portland Charter Commission last year and previously for the Legislature in House District 41. 

Grant praised the equity work of the School Board and said he looks forward to the possibility of building a new high school, “which could be truly transformational for the city.” 

The other potential candidates as of March 28 were: Savanna Pettengill of Vesper Street, Stephanie Albert of Bernard Road, Kimberly Mancini of Alpine Road, and Amber Schertz for the at-large seats, Sarah Brydon of Hillcrest Circle, Barbara Goglin of Edgeworth Avenue, John Flaherty-Stanford of Jackson Street, Joshua Haefele of Olde Birch Lane, and Lou Viola of Greenwood Lane in District 5.

The School Board has been operating with three vacancies since last fall after losing members to resignation and last year’s City Council election.

— Evan Edmonds

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