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South Portland residents organize for school advocacy, oversight

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South Portland residents organize for school advocacy, oversight

SOUTH PORTLAND — When a $5.8 million bond for high school and middle school improvements was being presented to voters last year, a group of parents got together to build support and turn out the vote.

Since the passage of the school improvement bond, the group, bolstered by parent organizations at each of the city's eight schools, has continued to take an active interest in direction of city schools.

Members of the Partnership for South Portland Schools have had a prominent voice – both supportive and critical – in this year's budget process.

"If we can get this thing as big as we want, there are going to be a lot of different opinions in the room," said partnership member Ross Little, a parent who is also a member of the Secondary Schools Facility Committee.

Partnership members implored the School Board to defy the City Council by proposing a tax increase to preserve school programs and vetoing a proposal to close Mahoney Middle School next year.

They also criticized school officials for lacking a long-term plan for the district, especially on facility needs at the high school and middle schools. Members faulted officials for pursuing a $42 million building plan for the high school without having a financial plan to pay for it.

Little said there are more than 100 parents who have joined the partnership's e-mail list to receive information about school issues and to keep informed about meetings.

"This is going to be a conduit for information for people who need that information," Little said. "We really see this as a community-wide organization."

The leadership structure of the group, whose organizers include Peter Stocks and Susan Adams, is nebulous at best, Little said.

The partnership was originally established to become an academic booster club, one inspired by the success of the South Portland Music Boosters, which thousands of dollars annually to preserve music programs that would have vanished.

Little said the group is also following the Cape Elizabeth Education Foundation model. The non-profit Cape group solicits corporate donations and holds fundraisers to enhance school programs, he said.

Melissa Linscott said she became involved in the partnership not only because she has two elementary-aged children in the school system, but as a real estate agent, she is concerned about the impact the school system has on property values and marketability of South Portland homes.

"We do run across a lot of families looking to move to greater Portland and schools are at the top of their list," Linscott said. "I do have a concern that we're not looking far enough into the future at the issues and how they are interconnected."

Linscott said one of her goals is to compel the city to develop five- and 10-year comprehensive plans for the education system, since future budget cycles are expected to be as difficult, if not more difficult, than the current one.

"There are going to be other things that come up," she said. "From what I've seen, (the schools operate in) a reactionary, crisis mode."

While parent groups have organized in the past, Linscott and Little said those groups were typically inspired by single issues. They said this appears to be the first time a concerted effort has gone into building a lasting, citywide grassroots group.

Little said the goal is to reach consensus whenever possible and then present the  group's view to school and city leaders. Where the group lacks consensus, individual members typically speak for themselves, armed with information and talking points formed through their discussions with the partnership.

Partnership meetings would also become a place where city leaders could get a pulse on the often time diverse opinions of the community, Little said.

"We want to include people, not exclude people," he said. "There is no other way to do it."

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net