A sign outside Reiche Community School promotes the Portland Public Schools' summer meal program. Schools have seen a large decline in meal participation this year. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)
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Portland Public Schools are in a better financial position than officials anticipated after facing a nearly $200,000 deficit at the end of December.

City schools will be able to access $4.5 million in additional coronavirus relief funding, which will cover costs associated with maintaining learning in a hybrid format through June.

The funds were initially set to expire Dec. 30, 2020, which would have left the schools with more than $3.5 million in continuation costs. That would have forced administrators to dip into capital reserves and still leave a $170,000 shortfall.

Now, the School Department will have received just over $14 million in coronavirus relief funds by the end of the school year.

The additional funds will help preserve more than $1.3 million in reserve funding sources, including $650,000 in CARES contingency. The money will also cover $1.5 million in continuing community partnerships through June, which the schools previously considered discontinuing due to financial strain.

Superintendent Xavier Botana said at a School Board meeting on Jan. 19 that the recreation department is working to have financially able families pay for afterschool care for their children going forward. He said having some families pay for the care will allow funds to be allocated to other programs that need it.

The newly accessible federal funds will also indirectly cover $800,000 in loss of food services revenue, among other deficits. 

Botana elaborated on the decline in school lunch revenue and attributed the loss to fewer students being in school every day, as well as lower-than-anticipated participation in bagged lunch pickups.

While the Portland Public Schools have seen a decrease in the number of school meals served in the wake of the pandemic, Botana said reduced participation is a problem not unique to Portland.

According to a Jan. 14 memo to the Finance Committee, meals served have declined by more than 50 percent each month compared to 2019. For instance, the district served more than 62,600 lunches to students in September 2019, compared with about 18,000 last September.

In response to a question from at-Large School Board member Roberto Rodriguez on Jan. 19 about how to increase the number of meals being delivered to students, Botana said the schools are not seeing many meals being picked up per day at its distribution sites throughout the city.

However, it is delivering meals through its school transportation system to hundreds of families that have said they are unable to pick up food at the sites.

Schools nationwide, Botana added, have seen “huge drops” in participation in their food programs. He also said a recent survey revealed other Cumberland County schools have also seen declines in their meals being purchased. 

Before the holidays last year the schools provided students who needed food with enough for two or three days at a time, Botana said. But increasing the distribution of those packets could also be a challenge because that food could spoil or be difficult to manage.

He raised the possibility that the board could host a workshop on the topic at a future meeting.

“It’s challenging to have a way to increase our participation when you have roughly half of the kids on any given day,” Botana said, “as opposed to having all of our kids every day.”

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