Portland residents, staff members and the School Committee chairperson pushed back Monday against the City Council finance committee’s recommendation to cut the proposed $5.3 million school budget increase by nearly $1.5 million.

The finance committee recommended April 29 that the school department cut its requested increase by $1.47 million. Doing so would result in a 46 cent increase to the school’s portion of the city tax rate that, when coupled with a reduced tax rate from the municipal budget, would result in no property tax rate increase for residents.

School Board Chairperson Emily Figdor told the council Monday that the district “cannot meet our students’ needs with a zero percent tax rate increase.”

Superintendent Xavier Botana has proposed a $125.2 million school budget, which the Portland Board of Education approved April 13. That budget, up $5.3 million, or 4.4%, over the current year’s budget, would increase the school tax rate 64 cents to $12.33 per thousand valuation and mean an additional $161 in property taxes for the owner of a $250,000 home.

The budget includes $2.9 million in new spending to improve equity and address other district priorities and $2.4 million to maintain current programs and services, including increases in salaries, benefits and debt service. Figdor said Botana’s budget “is an absolutely critical investment to address the deep inequities in our schools.”

The investments in improving systemic inequities in Portland Schools include expanding the Pre-K program; more staffing support for English Language Learners; improved curriculum, including the development of Wabanaki and Africana studies; increasing staff diversity through recruitment and support for staff of color; and hiring an ombudsman and school liaisons to better handle allegations of harassment and discrimination; and funding for director of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Inequities in the schools, Figdor said, have only been made worse by the pandemic.

“The achievement and opportunity gaps are unacceptable,” she said. “We know we can’t keep doing the same things and expect different results.”

School-based therapist Emily Pines, a resident of Revere Street with two children at Deering High School, was one of about 30 people to speak at the meeting in support of the budget.

It “will make our local education better and more equitable for the entire community.”

Elizabeth McCormack, a Smith Street resident who has worked at Talbot Elementary School in Riverton, also backs the budget approved by the school board.

“We cannot claim to be a city that supports racial equity and reduce the budget from what was proposed,” she said. “You cannot have it both ways. Now is the time to move from performative activism to real actionable change.”

Marcques Houston, of Ocean Avenue, agreed, telling the council that the time is right for an investment in equity.

“A budget is a direct reflection of values and this is a bold statement by the school board from an equity standpoint,” Houston said. “We as a city have talked a lot about diversity, equity and inclusion and now is the time for us to act on that. We can’t wait and our students can’t wait.”

Jim Hall, of Cedar Street disagreed about the timing of the increase. Hall was the only person Monday who spoke in favor of the finance committee’s recommendation, and said many others feel the same way.

Equity work is important, Hall said, but he cannot support the school budget with a 4.4% increase¬† because it “raises taxes at the worst possible time.”

“Now is not the time to add a whole new spending category with no thought to balancing overall spending priorities. We are still all recovering from a COVID economy,” he said.

Council finance committee members Mark Dion, April Fournier and Nick Mavodones last week wondered whether the school committee could use an expected $18 million in federal pandemic relief funds to reduce its reliance on tax dollars. Figdor advised against that those funds should instead be used to “rebuild academic and social foundations post COVID” through a series of summer courses over a few years.¬† “Also, that funding will go to support reopening school this fall, used for such needs as additional teachers and other staff if physical distancing guidelines still are in place,” she said.

Using federal funds as part of the general operating budget is not prudent, said Beverly Stevens, principal of Ocean Avenue Elementary School and also the parent of a graduating senior.

“Using that for a one time cost is really hard because adding back into the budget later is rather difficult. It creates this cliff,” Stevens said.

Councilors did not comment on the school board’s budget or the finance committee’s recommendation, but are set to do so May 10 when they will have their second reading on the school spending plan.

Voters will head to the polls to accept or reject the school budget June 8.

Comments are not available on this story.