When systems don’t work, we should fix them.

Right now, the system for passing the school budget is fundamentally flawed. And it harms our students, our schools and, ultimately, our city.

Imagine running something large and complex (and perhaps you do): a business, organization, household, team or club. You’re responsible for every aspect of it, with one glitch. Someone else – someone not involved in your business, organization, household, team or club – each year determines what your budget will be.

That someone doesn’t know with any depth what you’re up against or what will make your efforts successful. It’s not their expertise, and they have no other role. They simply get to assign a dollar value to your work.

That’s the situation with the City Council and Portland Public Schools.

People sometimes refer to the school board as the “school committee” or “school department,” but both are wrong. The City Council doesn’t have authority over public education in our city. That’s the job of the school board, which derives its authority from the state.


The school board isn’t an arm of city government, and nor is it subordinate to the City Council. The school board is solely responsible for the running of our schools.

But the council makes the most important decision on public education in our city each year: setting the school budget.

It’s a vestige of an antiquated way of thinking: that city councilors (largely white men) were the only people who could weigh budget decisions. And that voters couldn’t be trusted when it came to decisions about money. It served to concentrate power in the people already in power and to maintain the status quo.

The result has contributed to the situation in our schools now: There are very significant gaps between economically disadvantaged students (who are mostly students of color, English language learners and students with disabilities) and more advantaged students (who tend to be white).

This year, the City Council’s finance committee voted to cut $1 million from the school budget. The school board considered how to make those cuts but, in a highly unusual move, declined – because it had presented the City Council a very tight budget amid record inflation and couldn’t cut $1 million and stay on track to meet the district’s equity goals. The council eventually relented and passed the school budget, but we cannot count on that happening again.

Question 5 fixes this broken system. It empowers the elected school board to submit its proposed budget directly to the voters – which is how it’s done in 94% of Maine communities and across the country. Right now, Portland is an outlier.


Voters always have the final say on the school budget (not so with the city budget). This is a powerful and immediate “check” on the school board if it proposes a budget that’s out of line with what voters want.

Question 5 fixes other problems as well: Currently, the layers of bureaucracy make it difficult for the public to be heard in the school budget process. Since the school budget boomerangs between the school board and City Council, voters don’t know who to hold accountable for the final result. And the status quo is a highly inefficient use of scarce resources that takes school officials away from running the schools, as they collectively spend hundreds of hours each year getting the City Council up to speed enough to be able to make a decision on the school budget.

The bottom line is that Question 5 is good for our school children and good for our democracy. And it has broad support: The school board passed it unanimously last year; the Charter Commission passed it by a supermajority; several city councilors are vocal advocates for the change, and it’s widely supported in the community.

Let’s fix what’s broken. Our kids, our schools and our city deserve no less. Please, join us in voting “yes” on Question 5.

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