Deering High School in Portland. Credit: Seth Koenig / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — A progressive budget focused on increasing racial and economic justice in Portland’s public schools will be in the hands of voters next month.

City councilors voted 7-2 on Monday night to put a $125.2 million school budget proposal on the June 8 ballot.

Its passage hinged on a change of heart from two councilors, Mark Dion and Tae Chong, who formed a slim 5-4 majority in favor of sending the full budget to voters, breaking with four others who held the line against property tax increases on Portland homeowners and business owners.

The budget drew a line in the sand for Portland officials, who weighed modest increases to property tax bills during a property revaluation against funding tangible commitments to racial equity in the city’s public schools, where students of color comprise nearly 50 percent of the student body.

Dion, who favored a reduced school budget in the finance committee, gave an impassioned statement Monday night explaining how he came to support the full amount. 

“I supported the amendment in committee, and that’s something I did through the eyes of my own experience,” Dion said. “I spent all the time since then asking myself one question: What if I’m wrong?” 

Dion, who is white, said he was swayed by Chong’s statement about the importance of reducing racial barriers in the schools. 

“And my experience looks like many people who look like me,” Dion said. “Maybe the families who don’t look like mine deserve us to do the hard work.”

The increase would raise property tax rates by 65 cents for every $1,000 of property value, amounting to a $54 annual increase for homes with a tax-assessed value of $300,000.

In exchange, it adds numerous benefits to the public school system, earmarking funds for an expansion of the prekindergarten program, increased programming for Wabanaki studies and multicultural studies, hiring additional social workers and other staffing for English language learners and students with disabilities.

Carlos Gomez, director of language development in the school district who works with more than 1,500 multilingual learners, called the budget “an investment in our future.”

“The multilingual English learners in our schools today are the business owners and patrons of tomorrow,” Gomez said. “They will be landlords, renters, teachers, police officers, firefighters, healthcare workers, elected officials and school leaders.”

Muntaha Mohamed, head of youth programming with the University of Southern Maine-affiliated education group Portland Empowered, said the budget “has been prioritized for racial equity within the schools.”

Councilor Belinda Ray, who represents the neighborhoods of Bayside, Munjoy Hill and several off-peninsula islands where many of the city’s wealthiest properties are located, opposed funding the full school budget from property tax increases, preferring the district push for one-time-only funding increases from federal coronavirus relief acts.

Ray emphasized that a property tax increase would increase the hardships of property owners, making it difficult for them to afford groceries and medications. The city offers several property tax relief and abatement programs for seniors and people experiencing economic difficulties.

Ray sympathized with the call for equity, but struck out against advocates for the school budget, calling it the “politically correct” position of the “in crowd.”

“I know how important the equity piece is,” Ray said. “But I also recognize that we have to try to establish equity also for folks that are living on fixed incomes and are trying to age in place in the city.”

Steadily rising for a decade, Portland property owners saw their assets skyrocket during the pandemic. The median sales price of a single-family home in Portland was $511,500 in March 2021, a 43 percent increase over the same time frame in 2020, according to a local real estate firm.

Nancy Walker, a Portland resident who supported the budget increase, said she saw students of color hurt in many ways in her time as an educator in progressive settings outside the Portland school system. Walker “has financial concerns like so many others,” but said she “will be happy to pay more” to support equity in Portland schools.

“Racism will never go away by itself,” Walker said. “We have to make it a priority, and enough of a priority that we are willing to pay for it.”