Some Portland parents, School Board members wary of high school enrollment proposal

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Proposed changes to Portland’s high school enrollment policy are progressing quickly – too quickly for some parents and School Board members.

The public school district’s process for high school enrollment has been the same for more than 40 years, allowing rising eighth graders to pick their preferred school.

Portland Public Schools logoBut in the face of recent enrollment disparities between Portland and Deering high schools, the School Department has proposed a lottery that would redistribute students if necessary, and likely result in a handful of them not getting their first-choice school.

Portland High School, with 900 students, had 200 more students than Deering last school year.

The lottery would resemble the Casco Bay High School enrollment process, which inevitably results in denying some students because enrollment is capped at around 100.

Students with “diversity factors” – those on individualized education plans, experiencing homelessness, recipients of free and reduced lunch, or English language learners – would be excluded from the lottery and still be able to attend the school of their choice.

Parents at a Sept. 6 School Board complained about the timing of the decision process, coming soon after the challenges of the coronaviris pandemic. The board had a first reading of the proposal and is expected to vote at its next meeting on Sept. 20, where there will be another opportunity for public comment.

Stacey Hang, a PHS graduate and parent of two students at PHS, told the board the decision feels like a “knee-jerk reaction.” She added in an interview that she still can’t wrap her head around the process, and that the School Department isn’t asking the right questions to the right people – particularly students and parents.

Hang said parents who went to school in the city know that enrollment and popularity have fluctuated between the schools over the years, and said the proposed change won’t address the issues that cause that fluctuation.

When students were asked why they chose their high school, according to the department, the top four reasons for each were all the same: personal preference, academics, school schedule, and safety. Among the least influential reasons that students picked any of the three schools were family that currently attend or family alumni.

Kimberly Mancini, parent of a freshman at PHS, said her son chose the school primarily because of the schedule and to follow his peer group. She said a priority going forward should be determining how the schools can be made more similar to address the disparity in enrollment.

“You have two very distinct academic profiles in both schools,” Mancini said. “How would that come together? What would be the resolution there? When they talk about school choice, you have to make sure that each school can offer the same things to kids.”

That consideration is important, she said, especially as conversations continue about potential consolidation of the schools.

Mancini also praised recently elected board members for being willing to dive into the topic.

New board members Sarah Lentz and Sarah Brydon shared the concern that the proposal is progressing too quickly, with Brydon saying she wasn’t ready to support the proposal while Lentz said the board may be relying too heavily on the belief that parents have the ability to watch meetings and analyze the material presented.

In an interview, however, new board member Ben Grant said while the hope is the proposed change doesn’t have to be implemented, it may be necessary if the enrollment gap persists and fewer resources are available to Deering students.

Deering has lost 20 percent of its staff since 2020, according to School Department data.

Grant said the discussion requires a longer-term conversation about high school configuration, which can’t be implemented in just a few months – which is another reason why this short-term option is necessary. As such, he said he doesn’t think the process has been rushed.

The upcoming decision, Grant said, should be to decide and confirm the procedure for implementing a lottery, but there’s no need to decide whether it will actually be used until student choices are known at the beginning of 2023.

He suggested the School Board not take a final vote until those numbers are revealed. It would then become a broader question for the community, Grant said, about what it wants for its high schools and whether a different model makes more sense in the future.

That discussion was opened up last spring when Superintendent Xavier Botana tried to get Portland on a state funding list that would make it possible to consolidate Deering, PHS, Portland Adult Education, and the arts and technology school in one new building.

The Portland Public Schools proposal was denied by the state. Although members of Maine’s Board of Education said they would consider opening an alternative method of funding that PPS could seek, there has been no movement from the state. 

Marcus Mrowka, director of communications for the DOE, said there will be another application opportunity for Portland in the future, but didn’t know when.

Botana said in an interview last month that laying the groundwork for that proposal and working towards consolidating the city’s public high schools is one of his major goals in his last year as superintendent. With both Deering and PHS more than 100 years old, he said the city doesn’t have the money to continue paying for necessary repairs each year.

High school enrollment is just one hurdle facing PPS and the School Board. The department is in the process of rebuilding student and staff relationships after protests in May by students at two middle schools, and officials also must find a successor for Botana.

The board has set out a timeline for the search, which will start with hiring a firm to identify candidates, then forming a committee for the candidate selection process.

The search firm is expected to cost $75,000 and come from the school budget contingency fund. Past searches have cost $30,000-$40,000, with the increase attributed to inflation and higher rates.

11% of Portland school water fixtures still show high lead levels

The number of Portland Public Schools water fixtures with lead levels over the state limit is fewer than a dozen from an original 90, according to recent testing.

PPS officials reviewed updated lead testing information following initial results gathered in the spring. After retesting the 90 fixtures that originally showed lead levels over the state limit of four parts per billion, it was found that only 10 fixtures, or 11 percent, remained problematic.

Initial results came from state-mandated testing, although it was expected that a majority of the fixtures would prove to be safe in follow-up tests. Confirmatory testing of the original 90 fixtures revealed 40 still over the limit, and subsequent flush testing of those 40 resulted in the 10 fixtures that remained.

Mark Coleman of ESHA engineers in Westbrook explained at the Sept. 8 Finance, Personnel and Operations Committee meeting that the longer fixtures remain untouched, the more likely they are to show higher levels of lead upon testing.

He said flushing fixtures after school breaks is always a good idea to ensure that fixtures aren’t producing water that exceeds recommended lead levels.

Coleman said the water in PPS sources is safe, and the remaining 10 sources with elevated lead levels will have another round of tests this month.

— Evan Edmonds