Portland voters overwhelmingly approved a $125.2 million school budget Tuesday night that includes close to $3 million in equity-focused investments and increases school spending by 4.4 percent.

Preliminary results showed the budget passing by a margin of 6,698-1,992, or 77 percent to 23 percent.

“I’m overjoyed and grateful to be part of a community that deeply values public education,” said school board Chair Emily Figdor. “Portland voters came out so decisively for our schools. What’s exciting is this budget turns a corner in providing kids who are marginalized in society an equitable education. As I think about the budget I feel confident it will change kids’ lives and save kids’ lives. I feel hugely indebted to Portland voters for so strongly supporting this transformative budget.”

Some neighboring school districts also reported school budgets that were easily approved amid low voter turnout. Biddeford’s $40.1 million school budget passed 206-43, while South Portland voters approved a $54 million budget, 351-105. In Gorham, the school budget was approved 439-215.

The Portland school budget is up $5.3 million from the current $119.9 million spending plan, but calls for a $6.2 million increase from local property taxpayers. It was approved by the school board 7-1 and by the City Council 7-2 after councilors rejected an amendment that would have reduced the amount to be raised through taxes by $1.5 million.

“Thank you, Portland voters, for your resounding support of our school budget for the 2021-2022 school year,” Superintendent Xavier Botana said in a statement. “This budget, endorsed by both the Portland Board of Public Education and the City Council, not only maintains current programs and services, but puts equity at the center of our work by making investments to address achievement and opportunity gaps for students who are English language learners, have disabilities and are economically disadvantaged.

“I am proud to work and live in a community that consistently shows that it not only believes in the value of public education but also in making that education accessible for all. Thanks to the Portland community’s support for our schools, we can now move forward and focus all our energies on planning for students to return to full-time learning this fall.”

The referendum comes a day after the City Council approved a $212 million budget with a 4 percent, or 46 cent, reduction in the municipal portion of the property tax rate. Between the two, taxpayers face a nearly 1 percent overall property tax increase, which translates to a $54 increase on a home assessed at $300,000.

Voters Tuesday offered mixed feedback on the school budget. Many said they supported it, but some said they felt the increase was too much in a tough financial year.

“It’s obvious that after the pandemic disparities and issues were uncovered, and also new issues were created,” said Sarai Manyiel, a 10th grade English teacher at Casco Bay High School, who said she planned to support the budget before casting her vote Tuesday. “In order for teachers to be with kids full time it’s important that we are equipped with the resources that we need to provide healing. We’re not just going back to learning or going back to life but we’re also processing the trauma that took place this past year.

“We’re processing everything that happened and regaining the skills that were lost in isolation. It’s important to vote for the budget to make sure we have these resources in place for the kids who need them most.”

Jack Harvey and Al Burgermeister, who moved to Portland in October, both voted for the budget. They said they had only been following the process a little, but wanted to show support for the schools.

“I want to support the schools, no matter what the issue is,” said Harvey, 68. “If you short the budget, you’re cutting your nose off to spite your face. We don’t have kids but it’s important kids are educated for the common good.”

But Sherrill Weisman, a retired preschool teacher, said she voted against the budget because she didn’t think there was enough explanation behind the increase.

“It’s been a tough year for a lot of people and I understand the need to ask for an increase but we have a lot of people who are going without things as well,” said Weisman, 65.

The $5.3 million increase puts $2.4 million toward maintaining current programs and services and increased salaries, benefits and debt service, while $2.9 million will go to equity-focused investments.

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 for linguistic and identity-based work.

Some city councilors suggested the district should try and use federal coronavirus relief funds rather than taxpayer dollars to pay for new investments. But school officials have said it would not be sustainable to fund long-term initiatives with federal dollars that will eventually expire.

Portland Public Schools has been awarded $42 million in federal coronavirus relief to date, and about $13.5 million has been spent, district communications coordinator Tess Nacelewicz said in an email Tuesday. Other funds have been committed for spending and the district is planning to spend the remainder on costs associated with reopening schools, she said.

The budget does not include an additional $6.2 million in state funding the district could see if a supplemental budget proposed by Gov. Janet Mills is approved by the Legislature. If that money is available, Botana said last week, its use would need approval from the school board and City Council. Once the funds are received and decisions about their use are made – if that work is completed by mid-July – it would be reflected in this year’s tax bills.


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