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PORTLAND — A proposal that could save close to $3 million in school operating costs in the first year – while calling for significant changes in grade configurations and building use – is being described by officials as a measure that should be implemented only if absolutely necessary.
The Enrollment and Facility Study Commission, which has been meeting since last fall to see if there are cost savings or efficiencies that could be implemented to reduce the annual cost of running the city’s schools, has now agreed on an initial recommendation.
At a Feb. 14 meeting, commission members unanimously endorsed a cost-saving option that would lead to one of the city’s three public high schools housing students in grades 10-12, while one of the others would be repurposed into a junior high school for grades 7-9.
Under this proposal, the elementary schools would become pre-K to grade 4, except for the two island schools. Two of the city’s middle schools would then be used for students in grades 5 and 6.
The third middle school would be closed and repurposed for Portland Adult Education, the district’s central office and a K-12 special education program.
The School Board will hold a hearing to get public input on the plan at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 26, at Casco Bay High School, 196 Allen Ave. The facilities commission will then meet in early March to finalize its recommendation to the School Board.
Peter Eglinton, chairman of the facilities commission, said Monday that even if the School Board ultimately decides to reconfigure school buildings, the changes would likely “take a while to develop and implement, which means any cost savings could be phased or delayed.”
He also said the commission was careful to frame its vote last week by saying this cost-saving option should only be considered if the School Department finds itself in “a dire financial situation.”
However, with the Maine Department of Education releasing preliminary state aid numbers last week, Eglinton said Portland’s annual allotment could increase, meaning there could be less pressure on the School Department to reduce spending in the next fiscal year.
In a recent announcement, Gov. Janet Mills requested a $41.3 million addition to education funding in the first year of her proposed biennial budget.
Under that budget proposal, the Portland schools could receive an additional $700,000 in state aid for the 2020 fiscal year, according to the Portland Press Herald. “(If) we don’t have a shortfall. That puts us in a very different position,” Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana told the paper Feb. 15.
The school budget for the current, 2019fiscal year is $110.6 million, which represented a $4.8 million increase in spending from fiscal year 2018.
Eglinton said even if the School Department does decide to realign grades and schools, the costs of moving students and preparing the various school buildings for a different population could eat into the estimated cost savings of $2.8 million.
He also said there would likely be changes in bus routes that could lead to unanticipated costs.
While the facilities commission agreed to move forward on what it deemed the least disruptive option, Eglinton admitted Monday that “a number of members felt that none of the options (under discussion) were worth it.”
But, he said, “the group did have a charge to fulfill,” so it felt compelled to propose at least one option for the School Board to consider.
The other options, including one that called for closing either Portland or Deering high school, had a cost savings of just under $2 million; another that would reconfigure the middle and high schools had an estimated savings of about $763,000.
Eglinton said he’s confident the facilities commission was working with “the best available information” during its deliberations and “wanted to make sure that any (recommendations) were based on solid information.”
He said the “commission took its charge very seriously and it represented a broad range of constituencies that asked great questions.”
The School Board created the Enrollment and Facility Study “after the challenging fiscal year 2019 budget,” the School Department said in a press release. It got to work last October with 17 members, including two members from the School Board and two city councilors.
Sarah Thompson, a School Board member who was instrumental in pushing for the creation of the Enrollment and Facility Study, said Monday the results show what she’s always suspected: “There’s really not much cost savings in closing schools or redistricting.”
Thompson, along with Marnie Morrione, represented the School Board on the facilities commission and this week said there is “still enough enrollment to justify” keeping all of the district’s school buildings open and operating as they are now.
She characterized the commission vote on Feb. 14 as “this is the only option that we should look at, if anything at all is to be considered. This would be a complete disruption of the entire district, so everybody felt this should only be done if necessary.”
Thompson called the proposal to reconfigure grades and building use “a drastic move,” but said of all the options being considered it was the least disruptive and represented the largest cost savings, although only for the first year of operations.
She said the commission is looking forward to getting public reaction to the proposal, but reiterated that members felt it should only be pursued if “we absolutely had to.”
Roberto Rodriguez, chairman of the School Board, on Monday said while there are still many moving parts, he would only support such a measure if “it aligns with our district goals and makes the district stronger.”
He said ultimately the School Board will have to balance the push to reduce spending against implementing measures that could be too disruptive to students and the School Department’s overall programming goals.
The Portland Public Schools Central Office, 353 Cumberland Ave.
Peter Eglinton, chairman of the Portland School Department’s Enrollment and Facility Study Commission, said this week that the group “took its charge very seriously and represented a broad range of constituencies.”