Portland residents will consider approving a $125.2 million school budget Tuesday that includes close to $3 million in new investments for equity-focused initiatives.

The budget, which gained 7-1 approval from the school board and 7-2 approval from the City Council, is up $5.3 million, or 4.4 percent, from the current budget and includes a 5.5 percent increase in the school portion of the tax rate.

However, the school district could see additional state funding if a supplemental budget proposal from Gov. Janet Mills is approved by the Legislature. That money could be used to offset the tax increase, although Portland Public Schools doesn’t have plans for how the additional money would be spent and its use would first need approval from the school board and City Council.

“We are hoping the Maine Legislature will act on the governor’s proposal to fund public education at the statutory 55 percent level for the first time in history,” Superintendent Xavier Botana said at a school board meeting last week. “If that comes to pass, PPS stands to realize an increase of $6.2 million.”

In an email Friday, Botana said the district doesn’t “count our chickens before they hatch” and that if the additional state funding is approved, staff will bring recommendations for its use to the school board’s finance committee. Once the funds are received and decisions are made, and if that work is completed by mid-July, it would be reflected in this year’s tax bills.

The $125.2 million school budget represents an increase over the current $119.9 million budget and calls for an increased investment of $6.2 million from local taxpayers. On Monday the City Council will consider a $268 million budget with a 4 percent reduction in the municipal portion of the tax rate. Between the municipal and school budgets taxpayers would face a nearly 1 percent overall increase in property taxes, which translates to a $54 increase on a home with a tax-assessed value of $300,000.

The governor’s proposal, which was announced a few days after the council vote to approve the school budget, would bump the state’s share of public school funding to 55 percent of essential service costs, a mandate in law that’s never been met since it was approved by voters 17 years ago.

Portland’s school budget currently includes about $18.7 million in total state funding, which includes not just essential costs but also debt service, adult education and food service. It represents a decrease of 4.5 percent, or $880,000, from the current budget, largely due to an increase in the city’s valuation.

“I’m so grateful to Gov. Mills for finally honoring the state’s obligation to cover 55 percent of the cost of public education statewide,” said school board Chair Emily Figdor in an email. “In Portland, the state covers just a small fraction of our school budget, because there is so much real estate wealth in the city even though there is also such poverty. It’s a really tricky, long-term problem that gets worse every year as Portland’s property values rapidly increase.”

Figdor said there are a number of possibilities for how the additional state funding could be used, including to pay core staff such as custodians whose salaries and benefits are currently being paid for with federal relief funds, but who will remain in the budget after federal funding ends, or to expand pre-K.

“Currently, due to onerous state licensing issues, we’re not able to provide care for pre-K students before or after school,” Figdor said. “Many families can’t leave work to pick up their four-year-old in the early or middle of the afternoon. The additional state funding could be used to address licensing and provide before and after care, so more four-year-olds in Portland could be in school.”

Another possibility would be to use the money to help cover debt service for the renovation of four elementary schools, a $64 million project approved by voters in 2017.

“I want to make sure we’re using the money to put the district on more solid financial footing,” Figdor said. “That means using the money to pay our core staff, expand pre-K, and renovate our four rundown elementary schools. If then there’s still state money, we could pay down the tax increase.”

About $2.4 million of the increase in the budget maintains current programs and services and covers increased costs for salaries, benefits and debt service, while $2.9 million in equity investments makes up the remainder. The equity investments include resources for implementing the district’s Lau plan, which identifies and provides programming for English language learner students; expansion of the district’s pre-K program with two additional classrooms and transportation; enhanced special education services; and resources to support development and curriculum in Wabanaki and Africana studies.

There are also funds for implementing a new discrimination and harassment policy, including stipends for school-based liaisons and a districtwide ombudsman position, and for supporting a diverse staff through a new human resources position and by providing compensation done for linguistic and identity-based work.

The school budget has encountered some pushback this year, including from some city councilors who called on the district to use federal coronavirus relief funds rather than local taxpayer dollars to fund the new investments. School officials, however, said that approach is not sustainable and would only lead to a funding gap in the future when federal funds are no longer available.

Nick Mavodones, who chairs the City Council’s Finance Committee, said he hopes the district would give some consideration to offsetting the tax increase with the additional state funds, assuming voters approve the school budget and the supplemental budget proposal is also approved.

“Obviously they have a host of needs from infrastructure to programmatic needs, but I would hope they use some of that to offset the tax increase,” Mavodones said.

Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday for voting on the school budget referendum as well as the special election for charter commissioners. Residents must vote at their designated polling place based on where they live and are encouraged, but not required, to wear masks or face coverings when voting.

Absentee ballots must be returned to the city clerk no later than 8 p.m. Tuesday. Ballots must be returned to the clerk’s office in the Merrill Auditorium lobby or the outside official drop box on the Myrtle Street side of City Hall.

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