Football 'flagged' by school board, pre-K vote scheduled

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PORTLAND — The full details still need to be fleshed out, but the School Department is planning to offer flag football at the city’s middle schools this coming spring.

It’s seen as a good first step toward building up the number of student-athletes who will be able – and hopefully more interested – in playing tackle football at the high school level, according to Superintendent Xavier Botana.

The School Board was set to get a report on the football plan at its meeting Tuesday, after The Forecaster’s deadline.

In addition to addressing how to best move forward with the football program, the board was also expected to vote on a plan that would add nine new classrooms and 140 seats for pre-kindergartners over a five-year period.

While football has a long and storied history at both Portland and Deering high schools, Botana said both programs have been seeing such a serious drop in player numbers that earlier this winter a proposal to combine the programs was floated.

That idea received so much pushback at a January public forum though, that a group of athletic directors and school administrators met and decided that maintaining two separate high school football teams is the preferred option at this time.

But the dearth of players is still a problem, which is why the group recommended instituting flag football first and ultimately reinstating the tackle football program at the city’s three middle schools.

In a memo provided to the School Board prior to this week’s meeting, Botana said funding for middle school football was cut from the budget several years ago. The Portland Youth Football League was created to fill the void but the number of students playing football has continued to drop.

Youth Football League President Ryan Jordan told the Forecaster on Tuesday that his group supports the flag football idea, but he did not have any further comment. However, he and others said they’re looking forward to getting more information at this week’s School Board meeting.

Under the pre-K proposal, the School Department would partner with at least one community provider to expand pre-kindergarten services in the city. In addition, the district would hire a new pre-k coordinator.

The proposal would add 32 seats and $1.3 million to the overall school budget in fiscal year 2020. By year five, it would add about $3 million to the budget.

The district now spends approximately $800,000 on five pre-K classrooms, which house only about 21 percent of the city’s 4-year-olds, according to Botana.

While the board is unanimous in its support for expanding pre-K, there are some differences on how to get there.

At a workshop last week, board member Emily Figdor pushed for a faster path to universal pre-K and said she feels the district is “ramping up too slowly” and not reaching all the kids who would most benefit.

She argued the School Department has a chance now to “put together a more thoughtful and informed approach. If we reach nine classrooms over five years, then what? We need to (be focused) on where we want this to go.”

At the Feb. 26 workshop, other board members also questioned aspects of the plan to expand pre-K, particularly allowing the community partner to hire and pay for its own teachers.

Both Figdor and board member Laurie Davis, among others, expressed concerns about pay equity and the ability to meet “quality benchmarks” in terms of the educational product provided.

Davis said if pre-K teachers are teaching on behalf of the Portland Public Schools they should be paid by the School Department, making them eligible for step-ups in pay, along with a benefit and retirement package.

Botana said board members would be free to make amendments to the pre-K plan prior to their vote, but he said there is little time left to include pre-K expenses into the proposed 2020 budget, which he is scheduled to present on March 19.

“You still have the ability to (make changes) to the recommended pathway,” he said last week, “but the imperative is to have an amount to put into the budget. If we don’t get it in, expansion will be delayed another year.”

Board member Marnie Morrione, who sits on the School Board’s Curriculum Committee, said her wish is to “move something forward. I’m anxious to get moving. I don’t want to see any more delays.”

As part of the plan for expanding pre-K, Botana said a stakeholder group would be convened soon in order to take advantage of various funding streams so the full cost of the move toward universal pre-K is not borne solely by taxpayers.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 780-9097 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

Even with concerns over a drop in the number of students playing football in Portland Public Schools, the Portland High Bulldogs made it to the Class A state game this past fall but fell to Thornton Academy.

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