PORTLAND, Maine — School board officials, parents and residents pushed back on city officials who opposed a new school budget Monday night, urging the council to fund proposed increases that would help them advance longstanding racial equity goals in Maine’s largest and most diverse school district.
But that proposal clashes with a goal outlined by some in city government, who say it hinders their aim of cutting taxes for Portland property owners. The tussle over funding has renewed conversations about the priorities of Portland’s city government after last year’s racial justice movement, prompting city leaders to put a price tag on racial and social justice principles articulated last summer.
“Nearly a year later, there are signs supporting Black Lives Matter all across our city and our businesses routinely put out press releases embracing racial equity,” School Board Chair Emily Figdor said. “Young people and many others across our city continue to push for a racial reckoning in city government, our police department and, yes, in our schools.“
The $125.2 million school budget proposed by the Portland Board of Public Education includes a 4 percent increase, totaling $5.3 million, over last year’s budget. The city’s finance committee has opposed the full increase, asking the school board to shave $1.5 million from the proposed budget last week.
The budget increase would add a 64 cent increase to the property tax rate, which is currently $11.69 per $1,000 of valuation. That would clash with a municipal budget recommended by City Manager Jon Jennings to slash property tax rates by 4 percent and incorporate federal relief funds to make up for revenue shortfalls from the pandemic.
For the schools, though, the passage would mean a raft of new additions and policies, including adding staff and summer programs for English language learners, expanding support for Wabanaki and Africana studies, increasing social workers and nurses and growing the district’s prekindergarten program.
The funding would allow the district to tackle long-term goals outlined in Portland Promise, a strategic equity plan the district created in 2017 that focuses on reducing achievement and opportunity gaps in the state’s largest and most diverse school system.
“Equity is at the center of this budget and our focus as a district because while outcomes for our middle class white students are generally quite good and comparable to those of students from affluent suburban districts, we do not have same outcomes for students of color, students whose first language is not English, students with disabilities and those living in poverty,” Figdor said.
Some owners of Portland’s prized real estate are bound to see a property tax increase this spring due to revaluation, regardless of the school budget. After a one-year, pandemic-related delay, a citywide revaluation will adjust the valuation of properties, resulting in higher property tax levies more in line with their buildings’ values. The city’s last revaluation was 15 years ago.
Fidgor called the revaluation another “equity move” that could help reconcile the budget gap, adding that the long gap between revaluations means that wealthy homeowners have received a large tax break.
Portland is also expected to receive roughly $48 million in federal funding over two years from the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan to help cover pandemic-related revenue losses, according to Jennings.
The school board’s budget for the 2020-21 school year, largely remote, did not see increases over the previous year.
Supporters of the school budget were in the dozens on Monday night, the first of two public council workshops. The second will be held on May 10, before an expected vote.
Amanda Atkinson-Lewis, a social worker in Portland’s public schools with a daughter in the school system, said that the proposed budget would “help set our community on a more ethical course.”
Marpheen Chann, a planning board member and president of the Cambodian Community Association of Maine, urged the council to put the full budget on the June 8 ballot for voters to decide.
“All of this disruption and instability has had a deep impact on the social, emotional, cognitive and academic outcomes of students of color all over the country and here in Portland,” Chann said, calling the budget increases an investment in equity that will “help level the playing field.”
Only one of the 30 callers to Monday’s council workshop spoke in opposition to the school budget.
At least one councilor appeared swayed by the arguments. In a social media post Monday night, Tae Chong said he would support the school budget without cuts, calling it the “largest investment in racial equity in our city and state’s history.”