I urge my fellow city residents to join me in voting yes on Question 5 to allow the Portland Board of Public Education to set the school budget before sending it directly to voters.

Xavier Botana is superintendent of the Portland Public Schools. He can be reached at [email protected]

Not only do our elected school board members best understand the needs of students and schools, they have proved themselves to be responsible fiscal stewards. In my seven years as Portland Public Schools superintendent, I have seen board members consistently craft budgets that reflect what our students need to succeed while being cognizant of the pressures we all face as taxpayers.

To give just one example, when our district received an additional $6.2 million in state funding last year, the board voted to use that money to address future budget challenges, which was very fiscally prudent. That extra funding was the result of a successful effort by Gov. Janet Mills and the Legislature to boost state education aid to a voter-mandated 55% for the first time in Maine’s history.

In July 2021, our school board wisely set aside more than half of that funding – $3.41 million – to create a debt service relief fund. We have since been able to use that fund to offset annual increases in the budget driven by debt service for the voter-approved $64 million bond for renovations to four of our elementary schools.

The board also allocated over half of the remainder of that funding to offset an increase in property taxes at a time when many city residents were grappling with economic hardship due to the pandemic. Their decision resulted in a 0% tax increase in Portland’s combined city and school budgets that year.

The state recently expanded districts’ ability to have unallocated reserves – essentially a rainy-day fund. I’m happy to report we expect to be near the maximum allowable 9%.

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In short, thanks to our school board’s careful fiscal management, Portland Public Schools is in a better financial position than ever before to meet further budget challenges, while also advancing our work to meet the Portland Promise.

Question 5 opponents have made much of a recent city audit, which raised concerns about district Finance Department operations, of which staffing challenges and vacancies due to the current labor shortage were key factors. To remedy those issues, the board moved swiftly in May to restructure our Finance Department to shore up our financial operation.

I’ll note that when this audit – which also raised some red flags about city finances – was conducted for fiscal year ’21, the City Council was the authority that set the bottom line of the school budget. In light of that, the claim that the council should remain as the arbiter of the school budget to prevent future audit issues rings hollow.

Question 5 doesn’t give the school board a blank check. If voters don’t like the board’s budget, they’ll reject it. That’s a powerful check on the board proposing a budget that’s out of step with voters.

Question 5 opponents contend voter turnout in June is too low to be meaningful, but even in years when other ballot issues draw more voters, the school budget wins handily. The higher the turnout, the better our school budget does.

City voters have the final say on the budget, and they have shown by wide margins each year that they prioritize investing in public education. Let’s give our fiscally responsible school board the authority to use its educational expertise to craft the school budget – and then let’s trust Portland voters to decide whether to pass it. Vote yes on Question 5!

 

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