Portland Public Schools is in the early stages of developing a proposal to secure a new method of state funding for the potential consolidation of the city’s two largest high schools, and its adult education and career and technical programs.
The possibility was announced in a School Board meeting on Jan. 4 and explained further in a community newsletter released Jan. 7.
PPS has asked the Maine Department of Education to waive a deadline to be included on a new ranking of state funding projects called the Integrated Consolidated Secondary and Post-Secondary Facilities Final Priority List. If the department grants the waiver at its meeting on Jan. 28, PPS would have the opportunity to propose funding under the new list’s criteria.
Although no school has ever been approved through this process, Superintendent Xavier Botana said he feels PPS is “ideally situated to deliver such a project.” In a later phone interview, Botana said the district’s rationale is aligned well with the program’s criteria, which is significantly different from the traditional school construction funding list.
The new criteria focus more on a school district’s vision and the community’s commitment to implement it. Funding also demands the integration of career and technical education and a post-secondary component.
PPS is already on the state’s Major Capital Priority List, where Portland High School was rated highest on the list (15th) for funding among “regular education” schools. But Botana said it’s unlikely the Capital Priority List would provide funding for PPS anytime soon, while the new Final Priority List would put the district in a much more advantageous position – behind only one other project – to secure funding from the state.
“I want it to be something that we’re actually talking about. Would we do this if we could get state funding to make it happen?” Botana said.
School Board Chair Emily Figdor wrote in an email that she supports the start of this discussion and the idea of pursuing state funding to build a new consolidated school that would combine Portland and Deering high schools, Portland Adult Education, and the Portland Arts & Technology High School. (Casco Bay High School would probably remain independent.)
Others in the city, however, are skeptical.
In a public online post, Jeanna Pascucci shared her high school experience when she had to go to Deering at night because Portland High School’s ceiling had collapsed. She said the bus rides were incredibly long, and there were frequent fights between Deering and Portland students.
Botana used that example to explain why PPS can’t consolidate the schools in their current state, because there isn’t enough room for all students at either Portland or Deering.
“The question then becomes, do we want to, as a community, come up with a physical solution for that by paying for it ourselves or trying to get state funding,” he said.
In his previous school district, where two schools were consolidated about 10 years before his arrival, Botana said there were still divisions in the community and school.
He acknowledged strong feelings of allegiance toward either school won’t just go away if the high schools are consolidated, and said the solution is to honor those traditions and do them justice in a way that allows the community to move forward.
Alison Hawkes, a parent of a former Portland High School student, said she likes that students now have a choice of high schools. She said keeping schools smaller and having more access to administration are benefits of the current system, but she’s “all in favor of throwing money at schools,” if it would mean improved facilities.
Kika Nigals, a parent of Deering High School students, wrote in a message that she thinks there’s an opportunity to combine the schools that will benefit everyone by sharing resources, teachers, administrators, and athletics.
Botana said he has received feedback from both sides and said it’s an important conversation. Even if the state Board of Education says no, he said, the community should still have conversations about what an integrated high school experience would look like and move forward from there.
Over the next 15 years, it’s estimated that maintenance of PHS, DHS, and PATHS would cost upwards of $60 million, according to Botana, who said that’s an unrealistic cost to accept.
“For us to turn around and ask voters for a new high school, it doesn’t make sense for us to do that without first exhausting all options at the state level,” he said.
Combining these programs into a new state-of-the-art facility, Botana said, would fulfill a “vision of cutting edge secondary and post-secondary education for this cutting edge city.”
Consolidation would also contribute to the School Department’s ongoing efforts to provide more equitable opportunities for students and also extend to the general community as a huge step forward for adult learning, Botana said.
When Botana presented the idea on Jan. 4 he said “we have nothing to lose for making this proposal.”
If it’s approved, he said, it would bring up the “long-overdue” community conversation about consolidating Portland’s high schools. If it isn’t, then it is at least a stepping stone for securing future funding or starting new discussions.