The Portland City Council unanimously approved a $119.9 million education spending plan that calls for a zero percent increase in the school portion of the tax rate during the 2020-2021 fiscal year.
During a virtual council meeting Monday evening, councilors expressed gratitude for the School Department’s efforts to control spending amid a pandemic that has resulted in drastic revenue losses and forced students into remote learning programs.
Superintendent Xavier Botana and his financial team reduced the budget proposal from the $122.3 million proposed in March, which would have resulted in a three percent increase in the school tax rate. Though the new education budget is up 2.1 percent over the current budget, it will not increase the tax rate.
“This budget does not have a tax levy and I think that is important for the taxpayers of Portland, especially this year, but it came with some pain for the school board,” said Councilor Nicholas Mavodones Jr., chairman of the council’s Finance Committee. Mavodones and other committee members recommended the full council approve the budget.
Botana said he was forced to make some programming adjustments to bring costs down, including the elimination of four full-time Spanish language teaching positions in the fourth and fifth grades, eliminating three high school teaching positions, eliminating one custodial position at the central office and reducing funds for athletic programming by $140,000.
On the plus side, Portland Schools expanded its pre-kindergarten programming by adding two full-time teachers and two ed techs. Botana said he also expanded special education services for students on the autism spectrum, adding one teacher and five ed tech positions.
People who spoke during the public hearing segment of Monday’s meeting asked councilors if the School Department had considered the potential savings of eliminating funding for two school resource officers, or SROs, at Deering and Portland high schools – a $140,000 expense.
Botana said the school board will hold a workshop and public hearing Tuesday night on that question before voting June 30 on whether to retain funding for the SROs. Having police officers work in public schools has come under increased scrutiny in the wake the death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police, with critics calling for defunding local police departments.
Several councilors pointed out that they are only authorized to vote on whether to approve the overall education budget. The school board decides on funding for the SROs and other specific spending.
“It’s up to the school board to determine how its budget allocation is spent,” said Councilor Belinda Ray.
Mavodones and other councilors said they were concerned about what Portland’s education budget will look like in 2021. Drastic municipal revenue reductions driven by the economic ramifications of the pandemic require that city and school officials keep communicating, not just now but in the months ahead as the city and education department prepare their 2021 budgets.
“We have no idea what the economy is going to look like next year,” said Councilor Tae Chong, who suggested the two entities develop multiple budget projections as the year progresses.
Portland Public Schools is Maine’s largest school district with 6,750 students. It is also the most diverse school district in the state with one-third of the district’s students coming from homes where languages other than English are spoken.