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Officials in Portland clash over a plan to remove the city council from the school budget process

John Phelan
Wikimedia Commons/public domain

Officials in Portland are clashing over a proposed change to the city's charter that would reduce the city council's authority in the school budget process.

Currently, the council votes to send the budget to voters after it's already been approved by the school board. But the proposal -- one of eight recommendations from a local charter commission -- would send the budget directly from the school board to a public vote.

At a press conference on Thursday, Democratic State Rep. Michael Brennan, with the group Protect Portland's Future, argued that the proposal would have a chilling effect on collaboration in the budget process.

"And that would be a very difficult place for us to be, as a city, if we're starting to make those types of decisions, pitting neighbor against neighbor and department against department," Brennan said.

The group said the proposal would also hand a "blank check" to the school board and remove important checks and balances in the budget process. Legal questions have also been raised about the proposal. and the group said that resolving those issues in court could be expensive for taxpayers.

Meanwhile, a new group, called "Yes for Schools," made up of local school board members and councilors, is supporting Question 5 on the Portland ballot.

The group's co-chair, Emily Figdor, said many school boards across the state already submit budget proposals directly to voters, and the change would also strip away layers of bureaucracy.

Figdor, who chairs the Portland School Board, said she often gets calls about the budget process from constituents. "And honestly, it's hard as a public official, to tell them the best meetings to attend. Because there are so many. So as a result, it's really hard to be heard," she said.

And charter commission member Pat Washburn said that school board members are more knowledgeable about the needs of the educational system.

"We did feel that the school board, which deals with school issues every day, all year round, should be the people to make the primary decisions," Washburn said.

One aspect of another charter commission proposal would create a joint budget committee, composed of four councilors and four school board members, to help guide the city and its schools on "budget priorities and constraints."