With the scheduled school opening of Sept. 14 only days away, the Portland School Department is facing staffing shortages that could prevent some city schools from opening on time in a hybrid fashion.
“We’re trying to get deep into those numbers to see which schools are most seriously affected because those are the places where, if push came to shove, we may need to start school in a different format because we just do not have enough staff in place,” Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana told the School Board Sept. 1.
The department also faces what Botana called a “very significant hole” in its operating budget.
Administrators said they were tasked with filling 90 positions in less than two weeks, a larger number of vacancies than usual for several reasons. The department will also lose its coronavirus relief funding after Dec. 30 and is facing a $4.4 million cost to continue the accommodations currently being paid for by the state.
Barbara Stoddard, executive director of human resources for the School Department, provided an update on the staffing situation for the School Board.
She said approximately 900 students have enrolled in Remote Academy for the upcoming semester, making it the city’s largest school. The large number of students going remote has required the department to make accommodations, including assigning 70 staff members to Remote Academy. Administrators have also had to consolidate classrooms because fewer students will be learning in person.
Stoddard added her department needs to backfill positions that have been left vacant by those now working for Remote Academy, including 21 teaching positions and six ed tech jobs.
Additionally, the department received 274 requests from staff members for flexible work arrangements by an Aug. 21 deadline. Of those, 158 were from classroom teachers. The department has also granted four leaves of absence requested by staff members for the upcoming year.
As of the Sept. 1 meeting, Stoddard said, 217 flexible work requests from staff had been resolved, with the School Department prioritizing requests that fell under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Of the 57 requests that were still unresolved Sept. 1, Stoddard said most were not ADA-related.
“Our feeling is that all of these are manageable, and our expectation is that we’re going to bring all of them to closure by (Sept. 11),” she said.
Stoddard said the department is utilizing multiple pools of applicants for the process, including contacting candidates who applied for positions earlier this year and were not originally hired. Teams of people are working to streamline the process, but Stoddard said the hiring process feels “daunting.”
Responding to a question from board member Marnie Morrione, Stoddard said the School Department is following the state Department of Education’s guidance for hiring teachers. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she said the DOE if necessary will waive certification requirements when districts are hiring teachers this year, except for special education positions.
“At this point, we have not hired anybody that is far outside of the certification, but basically anyone that has a bachelor’s degree is technically eligible,” Stoddard said.
Botana said “there is no question” the department will be able to open the majority of its schools in a hybrid format Sept. 14, but some schools pose a bigger issue because of staff vacancies. He said he does not foresee any challenges at the city’s public high schools.
In a Sept. 2 email, Botana identified East End Community School and King Middle School as the two institutions administrators are “most concerned” about.
He also said the decision to delay in-person instruction at any particular school will not require School Board approval.
Board member Adam Burk asked Botana when he expects to make a decision regarding schools opening on time.
“As soon as we have the data,” Botana said. “We’re working around the clock to put all these pieces together, I don’t have a specific date. If I had one I would’ve given it to you, but I don’t.”
Also Sept. 1, Budget and Finance Director Miranda Fasulo told the School Board that the department will lose its $6.2 million in coronavirus relief funding at the end of the year, resulting in a $4.4 million cost.
Fasulo broke down the costs that will need to be covered through different means after the end of this year.
Special adjustments to full-time equivalent positions necessary for the hybrid opening will cost more than $1.9 million after Dec. 31, and the cost of providing school-based child care in the hybrid format will cost the department nearly $1.7 million at current estimates, she said. Building substitutes and temporary positions for the hybrid opening will also cost nearly $750,000 together.
Fasulo said she has identified about $1.45 million in the department’s available budget to cover the costs so far. The district has $800,000 in available budget, and could utilize $650,000 in CARES contingency, although she said that is “not a great option” because it would deplete the reserve for the next school year. There will also likely be some savings due to COVID-19, she said, including in transportation costs.
The School Department could also use capital reserve funds, which would require approval from the City Council, or ask to increase its budget for the year, which would have to be put to voters.
Regardless, Botana said substantial budget questions remain.
“Unless there is a significant infusion of additional resources from the federal government or state government,” he said, “we are in a very significant hole that we will need to plug.”