At a special meeting on Tuesday, April 11, the Portland Board of Public Education voted unanimously to approve a $143.8 million FY24 school budget to send to the City Council.
The Board’s recommended budget builds off a theme of “Strengthening Academics, Behavioral Health and Operational Systems.” This theme summarizes the district’s three key priorities for the budget for the 2023-2024 school year: Maintaining the commitment to the Portland Promise goals of Achievement, Whole Student and People – all intertwined with the fourth central goal of Equity; being responsive to the needs of all students, especially those newly learning English; and improving operational effectiveness in such areas as finance and human resources.
The Board’s FY24 budget also is cognizant of Portland taxpayers. The district recently learned it would receive additional $3.6 million in state education aid and would realize about $400,000 in savings from health insurance rates that came in lower than anticipated. The Board’s budget uses more than $1 million of those funds to reduce the impact on local taxpayers, as compared to the school budget originally proposed March 14.
“We’ve tried our best to present a budget that is aware of the tax burden on Portland residents in a year when inflation is higher than most can remember,” said Board Chair Sarah Lentz. “We’ve acknowledged the need to reinvest in core operations like HR staff, and finance while also investing in student-facing staff to support all of our students, including those who have newly arrived who are multi-language learners. Within this budget we’ve done our best to anticipate and plan for next year's budget where we will no longer have access to federal COVID money and will likely face continued decreased funding from the state level. This budget process has been incredibly challenging, but I feel confident that this budget is the best we can do given the current circumstances.”
Interim Co-Superintendents Melea Nalli and Aaron Townsend said, “This budget addresses urgent needs of our students and staff while being fair to taxpayers. It accomplishes some great goals, but there still is a lot of work that needs to be done that is not fully resourced in this budget.”
The budget proposal has undergone significant revisions since the co-superintendents presented their initial $141.3 million FY24 budget proposal to the Board on March 14. That budget was built on the premise that the district would receive $2.4 million less in state aid than in FY23.
However, the district learned on March 28 that the state had revised its state education aid calculations for Maine school districts. The newly revised funding meant the Portland Public Schools would instead receive $3.6 million more for FY24 than budgeted. The district then confirmed late last week that an expected 8 percent increase in health insurance rates would instead be a 1.66 percent increase. This news freed up approximately $400,000 in the proposed budget.
On April 3, the Board’s Finance Committee voted to use nearly $1 million of the additional state subsidy to reduce the tax levy from the 7 percent increase in the superintendents’ initial budget to a 6.1 percent increase. Then, on April 11, the full Board voted to use an additional $70,000 from the lower health insurance costs to further reduce the tax rate increase down to 6 percent. That increase is in line with inflation – which has caused the district to grapple with rising costs – and is within the 5-to-7-percent range that city councilors gave to the Board as guidance during the budget process.
The Board’s budget uses the additional revenues to preserve core programming and enable flexibility in managing the challenging budget outlook for the FY25 budget. That budget year is expected to be particularly difficult because the district will no longer have available ESSERF money (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund money granted to school districts during the COVID pandemic) and could have less state education aid due to the city’s continued rising property valuations. To help prepare for FY25, the district is beginning work to initiate cost-saving structural changes while continuing to advocate for adjustments to the state school funding formula.
With the additional revenues for FY24, the Board was able to make a number of revenue and expenditure adjustments to the budget. For example, the budget returns community coordinator positions – community coordinators manage the volunteer program at local schools – to the local budget, and returns a number of core services that had been shifted to ESSERF in earlier versions of the budget to the local budget for FY24. These include math coaches, elementary and high school classroom teaching positions, high school youth development positions, and adding a literacy teacher leader and the equivalent of 1.5 positions to human resources and a grant accountant to further support improvements to district operations and finance.
Such local budget adjustments served to free up roughly $2.8 million of resources in remaining ESSERF funds to invest in key budget priorities for next year. The revised ESSERF budget contains additional investments to advance elements of the Portland Promise strategic plan in the next year. These include additional resources for summer learning, curriculum materials, and staffing.
The budget also includes additional investments to be able to address the influx of newly arriving students with intensive language development needs. These investments include adding additional language capacity at the school and district level as well as providing for additional instructional capacity to serve students, including a dual language learner teacher at the pre-kindergarten level. In addition, the budget contains funds to support non-ESOL educators to acquire their ESOL credential as the district takes steps towards supporting all PPS educators to have the skills and knowledge to differentiate for multilingual learners.
Other budget highlights include increased investments in district employees that total just over $4 million. To help attract and retain staff during the nationwide labor shortage and ensure hard-working employees can meet the inflation-driven costs they face every day, the district settled contracts this past fall with bargaining units representing teachers and educational technicians that included wage increases.
Higher operational costs also are part of this budget. The district struggled since last fall to pay all of its more than 1,500 employees in a complete and timely way, due to staffing turnover and shortages and systemic problems with the payroll system. While most of the immediate problems have been resolved, the district continues to work on a long-term solution by outsourcing payroll, a move recommended by the recent Spinglass audit. The budget includes about $775,000 to cover the costs of hiring payroll processor ADP and increasing staff in the finance and human resources departments – also recommended by Spinglass – as well as for shoring up transportation, facilities, and school meal services.
The budget also uses ESSERF money to add a few one-year-only positions to address class size challenges at a few grade levels in a few elementary schools to maintain class-size ratios in grades K-3. It also includes additional resources for the equivalent of 1.5 new teaching positions at Portland Adult Education to respond to significant demand for programming. However, PAE may choose to use some of that funding in the short term to provide more compensation to its hourly teachers for the preparation work they do outside of the classroom.
The budget also reflects an increase of $2 million for out-of-district special education costs for students whose specific IEP needs the district is unable to meet in its schools. These costs are required by law.
It also includes debt service costs for the renovations to the four elementary schools in the Buildings for our Future bond approved by Portland voters in 2017. Lyseth Elementary was renovated in 2020 and renovations to a second school – Presumpscot – will be completed this spring. The remaining two schools – Reiche and Longfellow – are less than a year from completion. Through careful financing and use of reserves, the district has been able to defer the impact of debt payments for these projects over time, but is still seeing a $2.2 million increase in debt service for FY24.
The Board’s $143,810,343 recommended budget for FY24 is up $10.7 million over this year’s budget. It calls for a 6 percent increase in the tax rate. It would raise the overall school tax rate by nearly 43 cents, for a total rate of approximately $7.48 per $1,000 valuation. It would increase the annual tax bill for the median family home in Portland (valued at $375,000) by just over $159 per year, or approximately $13.25 per month.
The budget the Board has recommended will next go to the City Council, which is slated to vote May 15 to send the school budget to Portland voters on June 13. A complete FY24 budget timeline and budget materials can be found on the district’s website HERE.
The Board’s April 11 special meeting on the budget can be viewed on YouTube.
The Portland Public Schools is Maine’s largest school district, with approximately 6,500 students, and is also the most diverse. About one-third of the district’s students come from homes where languages other than English are spoken—a total of more than 50 languages. 49.8 percent of the district’s students are white and 50.2 percent are students of color. Approximately half of PPS students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals.