The Portland Board of Public Education is looking at a zero percent tax increase in the latest iteration of the district’s proposed 2020-21 school budget, with reductions coming through either cost of living adjustments for employees or from athletics and co-curriculars.

The $119.8 million budget proposal, approved by the board’s finance committee 3-0 Monday night, will now go to the full board for a workshop and public hearing Tuesday.

Prior to Monday, a $120.3 million budget – down from $122.5 million in March – called for a 0.5 percent tax increase. But Superintendent Xavier Botana presented a new option Monday night with further reductions to come largely through raising the cap on elementary class sizes from 22 students to 25 for grades 1 through 3.

“I will stand by my recommendation on class size,” Botana said at the end of Monday’s meeting. “I think we’re talking about an incremental impact on the district as a whole. There’s six grade levels in (schools across) the district that will be affected by that. I feel that that is the place to go and I just want to be sure you know that I stand by that recommendation.”

Finance committee members, meanwhile, said they would prefer the district try to re-negotiate cost of living adjustments with staff to trim $372,000 from the budget. If negotiations are unsuccessful with union employees, the committee said, it would then look to co-curriculars and athletics.

“I wish we had better answers, but that said I honestly don’t think we do,” said Anna Trevorrow, chair of the finance committee. “Everywhere we turn is an equally difficult choice to make. With that in mind, I would be willing to support the superintendent’s budget as recommended tonight but I also hear my colleagues on the finance committee and it seems like the biggest sticking point is the classroom sizes.”

The committee’s decision came after almost four hours of discussion, including a public hearing in which members heard from about 10 people, including several teachers.

“The Portland Education Association does have a long history of working with the district through financial crises and difficult situations, and this can certainly be classified as both,” said Carrie Foster, president of the district teacher’s union.

With so many unknowns for next year, including what kind of federal and state funding will be available, Foster said, it is hard to budget but that “it is not in anyone’s interest to make drastic cuts that will leave lasting impacts on the families in our district.”

Taryn Southard, a second-grade teacher at Riverton Elementary School, said an increase in class sizes “moves away from what Portland stands for.”

“How do I have more students in my class and meet their needs in an online format?” Southard said. “We need to take these cuts away from students and teachers, the people who have the most work to do next year.”

Nicole Myers, an English language teacher at King Middle School, asked the district not to take away cost-of-living adjustments or step increases in pay.

“I just think putting this on teachers’ backs after we’ve really done everything we possibly could to get our students and ourselves through this crisis, it hurts very deeply to think we have to be cut or that money we might have budgeted for might not come to fruition,” Myers said.

The coronavirus pandemic has already forced Portland Public Schools to hold off on new investments the district had planned for and to budget cautiously in the coming school year. It also comes as the city and state face projected revenue shortfalls that could also lead to difficult budget discussions in the coming weeks and months.

The proposed school budget still includes the addition of two preschool programs, which are being funded by the state; new curriculum investments at a net cost of $124,000, and $293,000 for behavioral supports for students with autism. It also includes $665,000 to offset a loss of federal Title I funding.

But it doesn’t include money for other investments identified as needed to help mitigate opportunity gaps for low-income, English-language-learner and disabled students and that will likely worsen because of the virus.

Maine school districts are expecting to receive about $39 million in direct virus relief payments from the federal government, of which Portland schools are expecting to receive about $1.7 million.

The district plans to treat the money like a federal grant and will use most of it to cover costs of custodial staff and their benefits as well as anticipated costs for summer school and technology. A contingency fund of $200,000 to $500,000 will also be created to pay for other unforeseen virus-related expenses.

After Tuesday’s first read of the budget by the full board and public hearing, it is expected to go to a vote May 26 and then will go to the City Council for approval before a referendum July 14.

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