Portland High School enrollment decision prompts question: What’s next?

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With a 5-2 vote, Portland’s School Board voted to limit high school choice last week, but the consensus was that this “band-aid” change won’t fully address the underlying problems of the district’s high schools.

Portland Public Schools logoThis year’s eighth graders, the class of 2027, will be affected by the new decision to place guardrails on high school enrollment, following concerns from the district that the difference in enrollment at both high schools could continue to grow, leading to an unfair spread of resources between the schools. The change could mean a small number of students may not get their first choice school, marking the end of over 40 years of unrestricted school choice.

Board members Micky Bondo and Sarah Brydon both voted against the change, following a lengthy discussion at the Sept. 20 board meeting, which included the proposal and rejection of two proposed amendments.

The new format will come into play at the beginning of 2023 if the enrollment gap is too large, and would potentially redistribute students without “diversity factors,” (those factors include students with specialized learning plans, receiving free and reduced lunch, English language learners and students experiencing homelessness) to the school with lower enrollment in an effort to balance out the numbers.

Now that guardrails have been placed on high school choice in Portland, the district will now shift efforts to alignment of the two high schools, with the potential of a shift to an alternative model in the long term.

At-Large board member Ben Grant said the board has heard the calls to examine the bigger picture when it comes to Portland’s high schools. The next step, he said, is to hear from the district about the factors that make the two comprehensive schools, Portland and Deering, different, and how that impacts the students.

The concept, which got its first official mention last week, called a “one school, two campus,” approach, is part of the district’s new effort to align programming at both schools and remove the need for students to choose between certain classes or co-curriculars.

“There are aspects of both schools right now that are positive – can they be aligned so that kids in fact don’t have to choose? If your passion is the band, you shouldn’t have to go to one or the other schools,” Grant said.

The lack of resources due to enrollment has already been felt at Deering, the smaller of the two comprehensive schools, as a result of its lower enrollment. Student representative Natalie Santiago said she had concerns about the girls’ basketball team for their season.

“I don’t know if we’re going to have the numbers for a varsity team, let alone a JV team, which is really scary,” she said.

Ryan Hutchins, a Deering alum, teacher and PPS parent weighed in on the future of Portland’s high schools, and said alignment, both as a community and a board, is the route to go if the district wants to be able to offer the best it can to students.

“When programs are struggling to field teams – it’s really hard to build community when you don’t have those things. If we’re one school, what we’re going to be able to provide to students grows quite a bit, and therefore grows our community,” he said.

Scheduling remains one of the biggest differences between the two schools, and is one of main reasons that students choose the high school they do, according to the district. Portland’s schedule alternates day by day, while Deering’s only changes each semester, more similar to a college schedule.

Programs such as languages vary between schools as well, meaning students may miss out on a course they want to take depending on their choice, or choose which they’d prefer to take, depending on which school they attend. Portland offers Latin, for example, while Deering offers Arabic, Hutchins said.

Hutchins said the rivalry between the two schools could be an obstacle to future change, and that the high school enrollment proposal might have caused some animosity in the community, but people need to start viewing the situation not as two schools, but one city.

If a one high school model is in fact the plan for the future in Portland, funding remains a significant obstacle. In the spring, Superintendent Xavier Botana and the district explored the possibility of getting on the “Integrated Consolidated School List,” a funding opportunity from the Maine Department of Education.

Botana said there’s been no movement since PPS was denied the request to be put on the list, but he was told that the DoE plans to publish a request for applications on the “Major Capital School Construction Program,” for fiscal year 2024. He added that the work they’re doing to align the schools may make their application more attractive.

Addressing the underlying issues that Portland’s high schools face has been underway, Botana said, but a new resolution – which will be acted on at the Oct. 11 meeting – is being put in place so that the board’s Policy and Curriculum Committee can make the work more visible to the community and hold the district accountable, he said.

The resolution tasks the superintendent to deliver a full report to the board on what alignment steps need to take place, and a timeline for those, by the end of the school year in June.

Audit prompts questions about School Board autonomy initiative

Following a meeting which discussed a city audit reporting weaknesses and deficiencies within school department finances, outgoing city councilor Tae Chong pulled no punches in a social media post criticizing the school department and officials.

The audit, discussed at the Sept. 22 city council finance committee meeting, was conducted by the accounting firm Melanson. It highlighted some “significant surprises,” according to a principal of the company Alina Korsak. These surprises included a lack of segregation of duties throughout the district’s finance department, as well as financial reconciliations continuing six months beyond the year-end – June 30, 2021.

At the meeting, Superintendent Xavier Botana said that six-month delay didn’t impact the payment of any staff members. He said the district did allocate additional staff and do some restructuring to the finance department as a result of the audit’s feedback, including the elimination of the chief financial officer position and adding the Executive Director of District Operations position, filled by former principal of Longfellow Elementary School Terry Young.

Young said the district is considering outsourcing its payroll, which would be expected to address “many” of the concerns the audit had raised. In Young’s new role, he is responsible for both human resources and finance functions, among other school processes.

Councilor Chong, who was critical not for the first time about school board officials, vocalized his thoughts on Facebook after the meeting, highlighting issues with the School Board’s effort to support budget autonomy for the Charter Commission.

He questioned why the district, having shown deficiencies in its finances, should be given autonomy to do what they wish with the budget.

The Board spent almost $30,000 to support the Charter Commission recommendation, Question 5 on the Nov. ballot, which would shift the authority to adopt the school budget to the Board itself, rather than the city council.

Former Portland Mayor Jim Cohen joined the conversation online as well, recalling his time with the Charter Commission in 2009-2010, when they modified the school budget process to make it “more formal and collaborative” between the city and school finance committees.

“Now, question 5 seeks to undermine the important oversight role played by the city council,” Cohen wrote.

In a subsequent post, Chong mentioned Vice-Chair of the School Board and District 3 representative Adam Burk, who is up for re-election this November. Burk wasn’t immediately reachable for comment.

The post notes that Burk was chair of the board’s finance committee when it advocated for the spending in support of question 5.

Chong then went on to support one of the two candidates running in opposition of Burk, Julianne Opperman, who he described as a retired educator with “decades of experience.”

— Evan Edmonds

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