Superintendent Xavier Botana said the pandemic year has indisputably revealed “long standing disparities that exist between different groups of students in our schools” and his proposed $125.8 million budget attempts to correct that.

Superintendent Xavier Botana, seen at a Aug. 2020 press conference, is proposing a $125.8 million school budget that includes $2.9 million in equity, diversity, physical and mental health priorities. File photo

“While we relish our diversity and see it as a strength, we have failed to recognize that the disparities in opportunities for our students who are learning English, who have disabilities or are economically disadvantaged, belie the sincerity of that commitment,” Botana told the Portland Board of Education last week prior to unveiling his budget proposal for the 2021-2022 school year.

The proposal, which assumes  a return to full in-person learning this fall, is a $5.9 million, or 5%, increase over the current budget.

The spending plan would increase the school tax rate to $12.43, an increase of 74 cents, or 6.3% resulting in an additional $183.94 in taxes for the owner of a $250,000 home in the city.

Nearly half of the increase $2.9 million – comes from new investments in improving equity and addressing other priorities throughout the district. The remainder – $3 million – maintains current programs and services and covers increases in salaries/benefits and debt service.

The budget, Botana said, better provides resources “to the students to whom we owe the largest educational debt: those who are learning English, have disabilities or are alienated in our schools.”

Board of Education Chairperson Emily Figdor said the theme for this year’s budget is advancing equity, something the district has been working on “for a very long time.”

“We had to put much of it on hold one year ago due to the pandemic. The pandemic has only exacerbated the disparities in our district. Now the rubber really hits the road. We claim to support equity, but those claims will be empty if we don’t put the resources behind it,” Figdor said. “I want to acknowledge, the board has been here before and has wavered. To be an anti-racist organization, equity has to be at the heart of our budget.”

Proposed investments include: $2.4 million to advance equity, $216,880 to hire a director of technology integration and support and an outdoor learning coordinator, and $274,870 to address students physical and mental health by increasing social work and nurse positions at seven schools.

Advancing of equity calls for:

  • Expanding capacity in the Pre-K program ($220,000);
  • More staffing support for English Language learners, especially at the high school level ($1 million);
  • Improved curriculum, including the development of a Wabanaki and Africana studies program ($104,000);
  • Accelerating staff diversity by increasing recruitment and supports for staff of color, better compensating staff that work with language learners, and providing pathways for staff of color to advance their careers within the district ($400,000);
  • Hiring an ombudsman and school liaisons to better handle allegations of harassment and discrimination ($122,000);
  • Increasing staffing support for functional life skills students and students on the autism continuum ($419,000);
  • Funding for a  director of diversity, equity and inclusion ($120,000).

“This has been a most challenging year, but there have been many bright spots,” Botana said. “I have been humbled by the resilience and perseverance of our faculty and staff, our students and their families. They’ve shown incredible commitment to learning, grace through trials and a strong desire to overcome the challenges. They are an inspiration to me and to my team and are deserving of our commitment and support as represented in this budget.”

The budget is set for a joint review by both the school and council’s finance committee Thursday, March 25, at 5 p.m. The school board is expected to approve a recommended budget and pass it on to the council  during a special meeting on April 13 at 6 p.m. The school budget, along with the city’s municipal spending plan, will be reviewed May 3 and finalized May 17. Residents will vote on the school budget June 8.

More information and budget documents can be found at www.portlandschools.org/district_home/fy22_budget_development.

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