Portland schools spend nearly $30K to frame charter revision requests

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Portland Public Schools spent nearly $30,000 in legal fees in an effort to promote Charter Commission recommendations that would empower the School Board.

The School Department spent $28,500 on 89 billable hours from Portland law firm Drummond Woodsum, according to an email exchange between Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana and former Charter Commission candidate Karen Snyder.

Xavier Botana
Portland Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana: “This legal work was necessary to help the School Board develop its charter revision proposals.”

Botana said he was asked to engage legal counsel to help the School Board understand the implications of the Charter Commission’s work as it relates to governance. The board then developed requests to the commission based on the legal guidance provided in a series of memos from the law firm on Aug. 11 and Nov. 5, 2021, and Jan. 24. 

“This legal work was necessary to help the School Board develop its charter revision proposals, which will make our local governance more democratic and more participatory and would equalize the standing of the School Board with respect to the City Council,” Botana said. 

The School Board petitioned the Charter Commission for a series of changes that would have empowered the School Board and given it more autonomy in the budget process, as well as the authority to send school construction bond questions to voters without approval from the City Council.

Some of these changes, which include having the superintendent of schools equally involved with the city manager in creating the city’s annual Capital Improvement Plan, were approved by the commission’s education committee. Others, including the bond procedure, failed.

There was also guidance for what would become the proposal to prevent the City Council from having final say over the School Department budget. That proposal has made it out of the Education Committee, although its fate in the full commission remains uncertain.

“We believe there is a strong legal basis to recommend that the Charter Commission propose a Charter revision to require the City Council to submit the total school budget to the voters, acting as the legislative body at a city-wide referendum,” the Nov. 5 memo from the law firm said. “This would in effect limit the role of the City Council to calling and overseeing the school budget referendum.”

The Jan. 24 memo said the attorneys at Drummond Woodsum and those from Perkins Thompson, who provide legal assistance to the Charter Commission, disagreed on “the scope of Portland’s home rule authority to identify who can serve as the municipal legislative body for this limited purpose” when considering who has final authority on sending the School Department budget to voters. 

“Should the Charter Commission entertain the idea of removing the City Council from its current role in the school budget approval process, both the school statute and case law leave ample room to explore these or other alternatives,” the Drummond Woodsum memo stated.