The Portland Charter Commission is looking at making changes to the school budget process that would remove City Council approval of the school budget and instead send the budget approved by the school board directly to voters.

The commission’s education committee voted 2-1 Wednesday night to approve a “school budget autonomy” proposal that would direct the council to send the budget approved by the school board directly to a voter referendum. The current process requires a council vote on the school budget and allows the council to lower the budget by a vote of at least six members.

“We’re not trying to completely get the City Council out of it,” committee Chair Marcques Houston said, citing the proposal’s inclusion of a joint budget guidance committee made up of school board and council members.

“This proposal will help us move towards increasing the amount of collaboration but also putting the school board on equal footing with the City Council,” Houston said. “I really think it increases the parity and also the accountability and makes it easier for the public to understand what’s going on in the school budget process.”

The committee’s proposal requires approval from the full commission, as well as voters, in order to be enacted. Several school board members and Superintendent Xavier Botana spoke in favor of the proposal during a public hearing, saying it would simplify the budget process and allow decisions to be made by those with the most knowledge of the schools.

“The process as it currently stands is broken,” school board Chair Emily Figdor said. “It does not work. The relationship with the City Council, while we all want to get along, is fraught.”


Figdor said there’s no process outside a handful of budget meetings each year for the council to get to know and understand the priorities of the schools, and the school board is currently seen as subordinate. She said that the voter referendum will keep the board accountable.

“This would take a very significant step forward in strengthening public education in Portland and making the process more democratic, more transparent and more accountable,” Figdor said.

One city councilor, Roberto Rodriguez, a former school board member who served as board chair for two years, also spoke in favor of the proposal.

“This process of having the City Council having to approve the work of the school board, it politicizes the process,” Rodriguez said. “It allows elected officials that do have to respond to the pressures of their constituents to then figure out what is in the best interest of our students. … I like the idea of giving the school board autonomy and then having the referendum be the checks and balances.”

Some residents, meanwhile, expressed concerns that the proposal will lead to a lack of accountability for the school board and an increase in spending. “Complete fiscal autonomy for the school board is really not in the best interest of the citizens of Portland,” said resident Deborah Napier. “I think the school board should work in tandem with the City Council to work through the issues, work through the budget and come to consensus.”

Houston and Commissioner Marpheen Chann, who voted in favor of the proposal, said that while they understand the concerns of taxpayers, they also believe the referendum provides adequate accountability.


“Our school elected officials … are not asking for unlimited budget powers to go forth and spend unlimited amounts of money,” Chann said. “They’re asking for parity and they’re asking for a little bit more autonomy to have that accountability directly to voters to say, ‘You elected us for this purpose.’”


The proposal includes the formation of a Joint Committee on Budget Guidance, consisting of four city councilors and four school board members who would develop guidance on budget priorities and constraints, and submit the guidance as a non-binding resolution to the council and school board before the board develops a budget.

Commissioner Peter Eglinton, who voted against the proposal, did so after saying he hoped to bring forward further amendments either regarding the council’s vote on the school budget or a voter threshold for the referendum, but he did not feel he would have support. “I’m going to withhold my remaining amendments at this point seeing as it’s not looking likely to pass,” Eglinton said.

The committee also forwarded one other proposal related to schools to the full Charter Commission. That proposal, which passed unanimously, provides that the city manager and superintendent should work jointly to prepare a multiyear list of capital improvement projects.

The committee voted down a proposal giving the school board the authority to request the placement of a school construction or renovation bond question before voters and tabled a proposal addressing the filling of school board vacancies.

All of the proposals reflect recommendations the school board made to the Charter Commission in November. The board also supported universal resident voting, which would grant voting rights to non-citizens in municipal elections, and the implementation of a clean elections program, which would provide public funding to qualified candidates in municipal races.

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