An early proposed budget for Portland schools includes new investments in pre-K, English language learning and special education, as well as a plan to reconfigure the district’s eight mainland elementary schools.

The Board of Public Education voted unanimously to accept the $122.3 million budget presented by Superintendent Xavier Botana and advance the proposal to the finance committee for the next step in a months-long budget approval process.

The proposed budget includes an overall increase of 4.2 percent and an increase of 3 percent, or 35 cents, on the school tax rate, bringing it to $12.04 per $1,000 of value. That would increase the school portion of the annual tax bill for a home valued at $250,000 by $88 a year.

The theme of this year’s budget is “Addressing the Opportunity Gap,” Botana said Tuesday. It is focused on achieving the district’s equity goals through investments that would reduce gaps for economically disadvantaged students, students of color and English language learners.

“When we compare the data of our students who are not disadvantaged with the data of our least advantaged students, we see great disparities,” Botana said.

“I believe that as a community, we need to step up to the plate and live those values in our budget by continuing to invest in equity-focused programs, services and initiatives to reduce the persistent opportunity gaps between students.”

Those investments include $300,000 to expand the district’s pre-K program with two additional classrooms and transportation; $441,000 for new teachers for English language learners; and $390,000 to enhance special education services.

Also included is about $165,000 for investments in core instruction areas of math and phonics.

In total new investments aimed at creating greater equity would total $1.3 million, which would in turn require adjustments and reductions in other areas.

The budget includes an across-the-board reduction of 3 percent to the district’s supplies budget; a 2 percent reduction to the athletics and co-curricular budget; and the elimination of fourth- and fifth-grade Spanish for a savings of about $250,000.

Botana said the elimination of the Spanish program is “not ideal,” but is necessary in order to invest in the equity goals.

The budget also includes the enrollment-based reductions of three high school teachers, one at Portland High School and two at Deering High School; and central office adjustments.

And it calls for a reconfiguration of the district’s eight mainland elementary schools, a proposal the board began looking at in January as a cost-savings measure aimed at addressing long-term trends of increasing operating costs and declining state funding.

The plan would reorganize the eight schools into four primary schools for students in pre-K through second grade and four intermediate schools serving grades 3-5 for a savings of about $1 million. It also would mean the elimination of 20 classroom teacher positions in the elementary schools. Botana said it is too early to say how those eliminations would be made.

Other costs associated with the reconfiguration include a projected loss of $300,000 in National School Lunch funding due to a shift in the numbers of students who qualify at each school. There would also be transportation implications with more students needing transportation and buses having to travel farther each day.

Public comment Tuesday night was intended to be focused on the process of referring the budget to the finance committee, while opportunities for comment on the content of the budget will take place at future public hearings.

However, some board members and members of the public opposed to the elementary school reconfiguration did weigh in on the budget proposal.

“I think most people in this room want to seriously address equity,” said resident John Thibodeau, an organizer for the advocacy group Equity in Portland Schools. “We want that to happen. This proposal for reconfiguration sidetracks, confuses and conflates that issue. It makes it more difficult. It’s a massive undertaking and not founded on solid ground.”

Resident Emily Chaleff said the proposal was “rammed down our throats” and that “our kids will suffer and our teachers will suffer.”

There are still several steps before the budget would be up for a vote before the board and before the city council would send it to referendum, currently scheduled for June 9.

In the immediate future the school finance committee is scheduled to review the budget Thursday and a public hearing will be held at a school finance committee meeting Monday.

“I have confidence the budget presented tonight is a viable option, although one that has considerable change associated with it,” Botana said. “I feel very strongly we need to advance our work in closing achievement gaps. We can’t stand pat on that.”

 

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