Tuesday, May 19, 2020

My Monthly Column – May 2020

FY21 school budget still must address growing opportunity gap 
By Xavier Botana

Much has changed since I presented my proposed FY21 school budget to the Portland Board of Public Education on March 10. Titled “Addressing the Opportunity Gap,” that budget called for investments to mitigate gaps in achievement and opportunity experienced by our economically disadvantaged students, students with special needs and English language learner (ELL) students.

Fast forward two months and a pandemic. Schools are closed and we’re in the midst of an unprecedented experiment in remote learning. One thing hasn’t changed, however: the need to address those opportunity and achievement gaps for our most vulnerable students. The gaps are growing even wider, because the students that lack ready access to the internet and technology, and whose families’ struggle to meet basic needs for food and housing, are those same students. 

Our Portland Promise, the district’s strategic plan, has four goals– Achievement, Equity, Whole Student and People – to help prepare and empower our students for success in college and career.

Equity – reducing the achievement and opportunity gaps between our students – is the centerpiece of those goals. We already had a long way to go to reach Equity, even before COVID-19. Comparing the data of our non-economically disadvantaged students with those of our least-advantaged students, students of color and ELL students, we see great disparities.  Portland cannot be satisfied with those outcomes, especially with this pandemic only enhancing the problem. 

Our FY21 budget must continue to make investments to reduce these inequities. However, recognizing the new economic reality confronting our city and state in this crisis, my proposed budget is now lower than in March. It is now nearly $3 million less, calling for a tax rate increase of  .5 percent instead of 3 percent. 

This budget excludes most of the original equity focused investments for improving our ELL program, enhancing special education services, scaling up curriculum to sustain and deepen core instruction and enhancing our district website to improve communications.  

We are committed to funding those investments within the proposed budget.  Some areas include tightening our athletics and co-curricular budgets; reductions of planned cost of living allowances for staff (These would have to be negotiated with bargaining units.); staffing reductions (holding off hiring for vacant positions or eliminating those positions and layoffs and/or furloughs).  

I am seeking the flexibility to look for these reductions based on the circumstances facing us as a result of the pandemic.  There is much that we do not know about what next school year will require from us.  For example, if we are not learning remotely, we will need larger investments in technology and curriculum and less resources devoted to transportation and maintenance.   If the fall sports season is canceled we would be in a position to eliminate coaching stipends.

I recognize that any of these will entail sacrifices, but our students must come first.  Falling further behind now could profoundly impact a generation of students for years.

Ordinarily, the school budget would have gone to Portland voters in the June primary, but the state has moved the primary to July 14. The Board plans to vote on the budget on May 26 and send it to the City Council, which sets the bottom line of the school budget. See the full budget calendar.

The next step is a Board workshop, public hearing and first read of the budget on Tuesday, May 19. I encourage everyone to join us for that 6 p.m. Zoom meeting and share your thoughts on how to best meet all our students’ needs.

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