Portland voters will consider a proposal this fall to remove the City Council’s authority over the school budget, a move that supporters say will simplify the process but opponents say is legally risky.

Currently, both the school board and City Council vote to approve the budget, but Question 5 on the ballot would authorize the board to send the budget directly to voters. The council could still provide feedback through a joint budget guidance committee and issue non-binding recommendations.

Portland school board Chair Emily Figdor Contributed / Portland Public Schools

“Question 5 takes a really important step forward because it would strengthen our schools while making local government more democratic, more accessible and more accountable,” said school board Chair Emily Figdor, who supports the proposal and is co-chair of the group Yes for Schools, a group advocating for a “yes” vote on Question 5.

The proposal is one of 13 referendums on this November’s ballot and one of eight from the city’s Charter Commission. Superintendent Xavier Botana and school board members Micky Bondo and Ben Grant said this week that they support the proposal. And some city councilors also support it, including Anna Trevorrow, who co-chairs Yes for Schools.

But the proposal is being targeted by an opposing group, Protect Portland’s Future, which is encouraging people to vote against it, and is not supported by Mayor Kate Snyder or some other councilors.

“While I believe that Portlanders believe in, and want to invest in a strong public school system, I also believe people appreciate the current codified system of collaboration and review, and the annual checks and balances that ultimately delivers a final tax bill,” Snyder said in an email Wednesday.



During last year’s elections for the charter commission, Figdor said there was a lot of talk about “how broken” the school budget process is. She said she was getting a lot of questions about how to revise the process and asked Botana to hold a workshop for the school board on the issue.

Currently, she said councilors don’t have much insight into school operations other than through a handful of the meetings that occur around budget season. And she said the process is unclear for residents, both in terms of who they should hold accountable for the budget and how to be heard.

“For an individual citizen to be heard through all the meetings in the process, it’s really challenging,” Figdor said. “By stripping away the layers of bureaucracy, Question 5 will foster more public engagement, which will result in better budgets.”

After last summer’s workshop, Figdor said the school board’s finance committee developed recommendations to change the city’s charter, which the full board approved in November. The charter commission took up those recommendations and ultimately approved the “school board budget autonomy” proposal 9-3.

The proposal would create a Joint Budget Guidance Committee consisting of four city councilors and four school board members. They would collaborate and set two-year budget goals and priorities. It also removes the council’s authority over the bottom line number, though the council could hold a public hearing and send the school board non-binding recommendations.


“The goals and intentions of this recommendation are to streamline the process, make it easier for voters to follow and understand, and to increase transparency and accountability,” the commission wrote in its final report.

While most commissioners supported the proposal, the three who did not are all former school board members – Dory Waxman, Robert O’Brien and Peter Eglinton – wrote in a minority report that they had reservations about the legality of the proposal.

“School board members understandably seek to be responsive to the school community as well as to the broader public,” the dissenting commissioners wrote. “Even if some feel that this responsiveness supports budget autonomy, there are lingering legal questions about doing so. … Pursuing these legal issues in the courts could be costly, with uncertain benefits.”


The dissenting commissioners pointed to comments from Jim Katsiaficas, the commission’s attorney, who told them a school board would likely not fit a definition of “other municipal legislative body” laid out under a state law governing school budget approval in charter municipalities.

Katsiaficas said in a memo that there is a legal risk that a court could strike down the charter amendment.


He provided legal opinions on six of the eight proposals and stated there was nothing in them that violated state or federal laws, but didn’t issue an opinion on Question 5 because he said he couldn’t say for certain that the proposal doesn’t violate state law.

The commission needed a legal opinion that says the proposal is legal before putting it on the ballot. That came from Drummond Woodsum, the legal counsel for Portland Public Schools.

The firm wrote in a June memo that a court likely would rule that the school budget revision is not prohibited by Maine law, though they couldn’t guarantee it. The memo said municipalities should be given latitude in revising their own charters and that a school board could be considered as meeting the definition of a body that could give the required approval.

A spokesperson for the Maine Department of the Secretary of State, when asked about the legality of the proposal, said it’s not something the department would have oversight over. The Office of the Maine Attorney General also declined to provide an opinion.

Drummond Woodsum, in its memo, said it’s common for school boards in Maine to submit their budgets “directly to their voters for approval and no municipal officials are involved in the process.”

According to the Portland Public Schools, Portland is one of 31 charter municipalities in the state that doesn’t belong to a regional school district, where the school board budget is subject to further action by city officials. The district listed Cape Elizabeth, Gorham and Winthrop as other communities that fall under the same category.


If the proposal passes, Figdor said Portland would be the first charter municipality where the school district would have budget autonomy.

A spokesperson for the Maine Department of Education did not respond to a phone message or email Wednesday asking how Portland’s school budget process compares to other municipalities and if the proposed changes raise any concerns.

Portland city staff, in a memo to Snyder and the City Council this month, said the financial implications of the proposal are unknown and its legality is a concern. “Given that, the city may face legal challenges resulting in an additional expense to the city – either in the form of time and resources spent by Corporation Counsel’s office or fees (likely in excess of $50,000 or more) for outside counsel to assist the city,” the memo said.

The school district, meanwhile, has spent $47,950 on legal fees for the proposal already, and Botana and Figdor said they are confident in the opinion from Drummond Woodsum.

“On any given day we are dealing with arbitration and grievances, so I’m not any more concerned about a legal challenge here than I would be about any other possible legal challenge to decisions we make,” Botana said. “The general sense from our attorney is it’s unlikely (a challenge) would prevail.”



The proposal comes after the school district recently restructured its finance department and added staff in response to an audit for the year ending in June 2021 that found “material weaknesses and significant deficiencies” in school finances.

The problems included a lack of segregation of duties in the software platform used by the school finance department, untimely reconciliations and a lack of follow-up on previous audit recommendations.

Botana said the issues raised in the audit are not related to the budget proposal. “We are audited every year along with the city and almost invariably there are issues that lead us to take necessary steps to remedy the concerns that are raised,” he said.

Botana said the district is in good financial shape and pointed out that the findings occurred under the current structure where the City Council approves the budget. “Having city council oversight does not mean that you won’t have audit findings,” Botana said.

City Councilor Tae Chong, who opposes Question 5, pointed to the audit as an additional reason, on top of the legal questions, why voters should reject the proposal.

“Clearly after the audit, what it showed me was we have a horrible financial situation going on in the Portland Public Schools,” Chong said. “We have mismanagement of all kinds of things. … How can we say going forward they should have more autonomy? If anything shouldn’t there be more regulations?”



In a series of Facebook posts discussing Question 5 and school finances over the last week, Chong also raised concerns about a conflict of interest involving two of his fellow councilors, Roberto Rodriguez and Pious Ali.

Tae Chong Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

In one post, Chong said Rodriguez and Ali “are either director or co-directors of an organization that received the largest contracts from PPS in their organizations’ history.”

Though Chong didn’t name the organizations, Ali is the director of Portland Empowered, which is housed under the Foundation for Portland Public Schools. Rodriguez owns an urban farming business, Fresh Food Gardens, and is interim co-director of a nonprofit, Cultivating Community.

Rodriguez said he did not know what Chong was referring to and said neither he nor his business has financial contracts with the Portland Public Schools. “His accusations are incredibly problematic given he has no evidence to back them up,” Rodriguez said.

Cultivating Community has worked with the Portland Public Schools for years, Rodriguez said, though he personally does not do any work in the organization’s schools program. He said the district spends a small amount – less than $10,000 per year – to support the program budget, but any payments are piecemeal and not a contract for a lump sum.

Ali did not respond to phone messages or an email asking about Chong’s statements.

Both councilors are listed as supporters of Question 5 on Yes for Schools’ website.

“I think the school board are the elected officials who are the most knowledgeable and prepared to make decisions on their budget,” said Rodriguez, a former school board chair. “With the proposal of a joint finance group between the school board and the city, I think there will be enough oversight to meet the schools’ and the city’s obligations to provide quality public education.”

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