Portland schools regroup after state board rejects consolidation project

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Although a proposal that would have provided state funding for consolidation of the city’s high schools was denied, Portland school officials are hopeful another opportunity to apply for funding will open up.

The proposal by Portland Public Schools to the state Board of Education would have put the schools on the integrated consolidated funding list, and paved the way for a new school combining Portland and Deering high schools, Portland Arts & Technology High School, and the adult education program.

Deering and Portland high schools
Despite a setback at the state Board of Education, Portland Public Schools officials still hope to come up with a successful plan to achieve state funding to combine Deering High School, left, and Portland High School, along with Portland Adult Education and Portland Arts & Technology High School.

Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana presented the proposal on Feb. 9, hoping the board would waive an application deadline that passed in May 2017. He noted that funding has still not been allocated to any applicants who met the deadline, and said PPS – the largest school district in Maine – would benefit greatly from improved high school facilities.

The board’s construction committee previously voted unanimously not to endorse Portland’s request. The full board also rejected it unanimously, 6-0, citing the missed deadline and the lack of involvement from other school districts.

Only three projects have been approved for funding since the state program became available in 2014. Only one of those projects remains active, and it involves schools in several counties.

Several state board members expressed concern that waiving the application deadline for Portland would create a precedent and be unfair to other districts.

Even though the request was denied, Chair Fern Desjardins said Portland’s proposal had merit. 

“I do believe that the Portland schools have inadequate buildings for what their vision is. I strongly support that vision,” she said. 

Botana also urged the state board to accelerate its request for new applications.

“From our perspective, the sooner you can do it, the better,” he said, acknowledging that the immediate fallback for PPS is to submit an application in a routine manner.

The state board expects the application process could be reopened “sooner rather than later,” according to Peter Geiger, chair of the construction committee. Botana said it would likely take about six months for PPS to have a new proposal ready.

Portland School Board Chair Emily Figdor this week said the possibility of a new round of funding is an exciting prospect, giving the district the opportunity to work with the community on a new proposal.

“It’s a huge opportunity for Portland,” she said in an email.

Figdor also said a more integrated campus would help PPS address longstanding equity issues and open up more opportunities for students: “The buildings are old and were built to educate students then, not now,” she said.

Botana said in his proposal that PPS is “uniquely positioned” to make use of the program, which provides a debt capacity of $10 million per year.

In the next 10 years, Portland and Deering high schools are expected to need as much as $130 million in maintenance. Even if either building were large enough to incorporate all of Portland’s high school students, their facilities are inadequate, he said.

Botana also ruled out the construction of new separate schools.

“We are not considering any other avenues to build a new high school,” he said.