The Portland Phoenix

School officials seek to improve budget process after autonomy vote fails

Deering High School, 370 Stevens Ave., Portland.

Deering High School, 370 Stevens Ave., Portland.

After an effort to attain more control over the city’s school budget failed at the polls, Portland school officials still aim to improve their budget process.

School Board Chair Emily Figdor still plans to discuss possible tweaks to the school budget process with Mayor Kate Snyder and Mark Dion, chair of the city’s finance committee.

“We certainly need to be more collaborative — and that’s a big part of what I was seeking [with Question 5],” Figdor said. “The work we’re doing as a city and as a school district is really hard, and we should be working together to be the best city we can be, and not at cross-purposes.”

Portland voters rejected Charter Commission Question 5 on Nov. 8 by a 58-42 margin. The proposal would have given the school board the ability to put forth its own budget to voters without oversight from the city council. 

District officials were disappointed that the measure didn’t pass, but remain focused on ironing out issues with the budget process. They will just have to fall within the rules of the city charter.

One change Figdor suggested could be the formation of a joint budget committee composed of members of the city council and the school board. Question 5 would have established one with the city council having only an advisory role in the process. In this case, the council would still have the power to support or deny the budget

Voters approved the school board’s 2022-23 budget in June by a 75-25 margin.  

Figdor also plans to ask the city to line up their budget timeline with the school board’s. When the city starts its own budget discussions, it’s often late in the board’s budget talks, she said. 

“We don’t actually know what the city’s needs are until far after we’ve crafted our budget and even moved it through the entirety of the process,” Figdor said.

Consideration of the city’s annual school and municipal budget proposals is typically staggered a month or two apart. This year, the school budget was presented to the board on March 15. The city’s finance committee took its first look at the budget in a joint meeting on March 24, and it was sent to the council on April 11 following a vote from the full board. The city manager first presented Portland’s municipal budget to the city council on April 25, and it was approved in early June.

Portland Public Schools Superintendent Xavier Botana said that there’s a broader sense that the budget collaboration process isn’t flawless, but voters ultimately wanted the city council’s oversight on the school budget.

“I am optimistic about the ability of the board and the city council to engage productively in this next budget,” Botana said.

Michael Brennan, a State Representative and former Portland mayor who publicly opposed Question 5’s passage, was pleased with the final vote, but agreed that there’s room for improvement in the school budget collaborations.

In past discussions with the charter commission, Brennan recommended a similar approach with hopes that it could foster better communications and understanding between both entities.

“That benefits students, it benefits parents, [and] the community at large,” Brennan said. 

One thing that came out of COVID-19, according to Brennan, was the fact that schools don’t exist in a vacuum. City services like Parks and Recreation have become more crucial since the start of the pandemic in providing afterschool and recreational programs to students, he said, as well as student accessibility to city health programs.

“There are all these other parts of the city budget and operations that can complement and support what the school district is doing,” Brennan said. “It’s really hard to have that discussion when only paying attention to the school side of the budget.”

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