The Portland City Council voted 7-2 Monday night to send a proposed $125.2 million school budget to voters for final approval, taking the action after councilors rejected an amendment seeking to reduce the amount of funds to be raised from taxes by $1.48 million.

The proposed amendment, made at the recommendation of the finance committee, was rejected 5-4. Councilors Belinda Ray, Nick Mavodones, Spencer Thibodeau and Mayor Kate Snyder voted in favor of the amendment.

Ray and Mavodones then voted to reject the full budget while the remaining councilors voted in support. Most councilors discussed their decisions at length during Monday night’s meeting and said this year’s budget, which includes $2.9 million in new equity investments for schools, was one of the most challenging in recent years as they also weighed the impact of passing along a tax increase after what has been a difficult financial year for many residents.

Councilor Mark Dion, who sponsored the amendment to cut the tax levy by $1.48 million at the finance committee meeting last month, said he has spent the last 10 days asking himself, “What if I’m wrong?” and said he had been basing his earlier decision on his own experience when other families may be struggling.

“I still have difficulty with this decision, but I know there are other families that still have difficulty every day in trying to get the best for their kids,” Dion said. “So I will vote against my own amendment and I will send it to the public and let them decide.”

The school budget, which now heads to a public referendum June 8, would result in a 64 cent, or 5.5 percent increase, in the schools portion of the property tax rate, which is currently $11.69 per $1,000 of valuation. Meanwhile, the municipal budget, which used federal recovery money to replace pandemic revenue losses, calls for a 4 percent reduction in its side of the mil rate.

If approved as proposed, the combined budgets would result in a nearly 1 percent increase in property taxes, which would result in a $54 increase on a home with a tax-assessed value of $300,000.

Before Monday’s votes, councilors who supported the amendment spoke of their concerns about passing on a tax increase and encouraged the school district to use federal coronavirus relief funds to fill the gap between their suggested cut and the proposed budget. Those in favor of the full budget, meanwhile, spoke in strong support for the equity investments and said they are necessary to address longstanding opportunity gaps.

“We often hear it framed as, ‘It’s a cup of coffee a week,'” Ray said. “Well, the people who have trouble with this tax increase are not going out for coffee. They’re not buying $3 and $4 cups of coffee, so it’s not just giving up a cup of coffee.”

Councilor Tae Chong, meanwhile, said racial disparities in Portland schools have persisted for years and he was alarmed when Superintendent Xavier Botana shared data this spring showing higher rates of chronic absenteeism among Black and Latinx students during the coronavirus pandemic. “I will support the budget without cuts, because with the $18 million in (American Rescue Plan) funds it is a comprehensive budget that will address racial inequities in our community,” Chong said. “It’s still not enough, but it is the largest investment in racial equity in our city and state’s history.”

The meeting got off to an awkward start when Superintendent Xavier Botana attempted to speak in support of the budget during the public hearing and was interrupted by Thibodeau, who said it would be unusual for a superintendent to testify during a public hearing. “I fully respect the superintendent, but if he’s going to present something I’d much rather it be as part of a presentation to the council as opposed to speaking in public,” Thibodeau said. “I want to make sure we’re separating those two items: advocacy role as opposed to staff side.”

Later, during council discussion on the budget, Thibodeau invited Botana to make comments and answer questions. Botana declined to offer his advocacy for the budget but agreed to answer questions. “I don’t feel like I need to do advocacy for the budget on this side of the aisle,” Botana said. “I was on that side of the barrier as someone advocating for the budget and also as a taxpayer in Portland, but I’ll be glad to answer any questions you have.”

Only one person spoke against the budget during the public hearing while about 17 people spoke in support. At a public hearing a week ago all but one of 30 people who spoke supported the budget.

Christine Wirth, a teacher at Talbot Elementary School and the parent of fourth-grade and pre-K students in the district, said in order to achieve equity for all students the district needs to support items in the budget such as transportation for pre-K students, support for English language learners and continuation of the pre-K expansion.

“I urge you to continue funding all equity measures, especially the director of equity and inclusion,” Wirth said. “This kind of equity doesn’t happen in a bubble. It happens at the systemic level. With leadership centered on equity at the district level, I’ve seen the district’s measures trickle down to the teachers in our district.”

Rita Achiro, a parent of a student at East End Community School and member of Portland Empowered, a group that seeks to advocated for underrepresented stakeholders in the schools community, said as a former student at Portland High she wishes she had the kinds of support that are included in the budget proposal. “I am in full support of the budget because I believe education is the most powerful language that does not discriminate,” Achiro said. “Because of that we have to fight for this budget and I am in full support of it.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: