Tuesday, April 17, 2018

My Monthly Column – April 2018

Portland schools must keep moving forward
By Xavier Botana

Each year, we give our proposed Portland Public Schools school budget a name. This year, the title for our 2018-2019 budget proposal is “Portland Public Schools at a Crossroads.”

That title underscores that we in the Portland community face a clear choice. Do we support our current school system’s needs in the face of what likely will be ongoing decreases in state funding? Or, do we significantly reevaluate what we provide in the form of programs, services and the number of options available to our families?

I hope and believe that our community will answer “yes” to the first question.

Portland’s public schools are on the move – and we want to keep moving in a positive direction. This past fall, our district was ranked by niche.com as one of the top 10 school districts in Maine. Our test results show we provide a high quality education; our middle class students perform on par with their peers in surrounding communities. A recent student-growth rating of schools nationwide places Portland’s schools in the top 10 districts in the state and the 91st percentile nationally.

As Maine’s most diverse school district, we also have opportunity and achievement gaps for some of our students from poverty and students of color, but we’re actively striving to change that through our new Portland Promise initiative. We have established Achievement, Whole Student, Equity and People goals and have set strategies and five-year targets to achieve them.

Achieving those goals and sustaining quality schools require a continued fiscal commitment from the Portland community. Portland taxpayers have been generous with our schools and our results show why that matters.

Let me give you a brief summary of the budget challenges we face.

I’ll start by saying that we have a revenue problem, not a spending problem.  This year, the Maine Department of Education made changes to the school funding formula. Those changes contributed to a shortfall in our state education subsidy – for fiscal year 2019 we have $3.4 million less in state revenue than in FY 2018.

State education aid is influenced heavily by the total property valuation of a community – and property values in Portland are climbing. High valuation districts, like Portland, get less state money and are expected to contribute more locally.

To address the revenue shortfalls and rising costs, I proposed on March 6 an investment of $113 million in FY 2019, a 7 percent increase over FY 2018. We forecast this same amount in our multi-year budget last June. It reflects the increase the state school funding formula expects Portland to contribute.

The increase covers rising costs, such as our contractual obligations for staff salaries and health insurance, additional debt service for the new Hall Elementary School and investments tied to achieving our Portland Promise goals. It would add almost $20 a month to the tax bill for an average Portland home valued at $240,000.

I am grateful to the Portland Board of Public Education’s Finance Committee for its thorough public review of my budget proposal. That committee first evaluated reducing the budget by $3.8 million. That would have lessened the tax burden but cut deeply by closing our island schools, making class sizes larger, eliminating world languages in elementary schools and electives in middle school and increasing elementary school class sizes.

But many parents and community members opposed these reductions. In the end, the committee reduced my proposal more than $1 million through personnel cuts and a retirement incentive and advanced a $112 million budget proposal that meets the needs of Portland students while being cognizant of the challenges our budget situation poses for local taxpayers. That budget would add $168 to the annual tax bill of a $240,000 home. That’s about $14 per month to keep our schools on an upward trajectory.

The school board approved this budget April 12 and will present it to the City Council on April 18. The council sets the bottom line of the school budget, so please continue to stay informed and engaged throughout this process.  Here’s a budget timeline: https://www.portlandschools.org/district_home/school_budget

We stand at a crossroads. Please make your voices heard about the direction you want our schools to take.