The Portland Board of Public Education is scheduled to vote on a $119.8 million school budget with a zero percent tax increase on Tuesday, with cuts likely to come from either cost-of-living pay raises for staff or co-curricular activities and athletics.

Getting to a zero percent tax increase – as the city has asked the school district to do given the financial stresses of the coronavirus pandemic – requires the board to make the cuts in the amount of $372,000 on top of $100,000 already eliminated by the board finance committee last week.

That brings the budget down from an earlier $120.3 million proposal and an original $122.3 million budget proposed prior to the pandemic.

It’s unclear, though, how exactly the cuts will be made and whether the board will be able to follow through on the finance committee’s proposal that the district reopen union contract negotiations to eliminate the $372,000 from scheduled cost-of-living increases.

As a backup to that plan, the committee proposed taking the cuts from athletics and co-curricular activities, which have already been cut by $140,000, or about 6 percent, in the budget and rejected a proposal from the superintendent to increase the limit on elementary school class sizes.

Xavier Botana, superintendent of the Portland Public Schools

In an email Friday, Superintendent Xavier Botana said the district has sent letters to the four collective bargaining units and is working to schedule meetings with them. It’s unclear whether the negotiations will be done by Tuesday.

The district is looking at two proposals, one that would include a 0.5 percent decrease in cost-of-living increases for union staff and a $100,000 reduction for nonunion staff, and one that would more equitably distribute the cut between union and nonunion staff with a 0.7 percent decrease in cost-of-living increases for everyone.

Most employees were scheduled to receive cost-of-living increases of up to 2.5 percent this year. A reduction of 0.5 percent on a $50,000 salary would be a reduction of $250.

In an email Friday, Carrie Foster, president of the Portland Education Association, said she didn’t want to speculate on how the negotiations with the district might go. She said the union is interested in sitting down with leadership, other unions and non-represented staff to find ways for the cuts to not adversely affect students or the community.

“We absolutely respect the difficulty of the tasks with which Superintendent Botana and the board are charged and just think it makes sense to look for efficiencies through the lens of the people closest to where those decisions play out,” Foster said.

School board Chairman Roberto Rodriguez said Friday that while it is not preferred, if the board is unable to pass a budget Tuesday, an emergency meeting could be called later in the week.

“My sense is if by Tuesday there’s no guarantee of how those limitations on COLA are going to happen, I don’t know what would be a next step, but that might be a big roadblock,” he said.

Dozens of people last week turned out for a public hearing held virtually on the budget, in which many expressed opposition to further athletic and co-curricular cuts and weighed in on the district’s use of school resource officers.

Though it has not been formally proposed as part of the budget, school board member Emily Figdor has said she is considering introducing a proposal to eliminate funding for the school resource officers. Figdor did not respond to a phone call or email Friday asking if she is still considering making such an amendment.

School resource officers – police officers who work in schools – are currently in place at Portland and Deering high schools and cost the district about $130,000 per year. Their effectiveness has been an ongoing source of debate during board discussions this year on whether the officers should wear body cameras like the rest of the Portland Police Department.

It’s also possible the board on Tuesday could revisit Botana’s proposal to create the cost savings by increasing the limit on class sizes for students in grades one to three from 22 students to 25.

“I think the board will stay within the guidance from the finance committee and the city council finance committee with the total number and a zero percent tax increase, but how we get to that number I think will still very much be up for discussion Tuesday night,” said board member Adam Burk.

Another board member, Micky Bondo, said she does not support cuts to co-curriculars and athletics, and is still waiting to see what comes of the negotiations with the unions.

“We heard the community and heard parents and students,” she said. “We will take that into consideration and see where we can find reductions to try to minimize (the impact) on co-curriculars. I don’t want to see any cuts going to hurt the students right now.”

The existing cuts in the budget for athletics and co-curriculars are being made across schools based on enrollment projections, though that has drawn concern from some board members as Deering High School, with a projected enrollment of 737 students, is seeing about $30,000 more in cuts than Portland High, with a projected enrollment of 870 students.

The total budget for athletics and co-curriculars stands at around $2.5 million, and if further cuts are needed, Botana said the district has not decided where in the athletics budget they would come from.

“That’s a really, really severe deep cut that I think most people were speaking against when we had the public hearing,” Rodriguez said.

Portland Public Schools’ budget makes up about one-third of the overall city budget and about one-half of the tax rate. While the school district’s revenue comes primarily from state education aid and local property tax funds, the city’s revenue stream is more diverse and has been harder hit by the pandemic.

Members of the City Council finance committee have expressed support for the $119.8 million school budget, and voted 4-0 Thursday to move the budget to the full council pending school board approval.

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