Portland School Board weighs study of consolidation, redistricting

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PORTLAND — At least one member of the School Board believes a consolidation study could be a chance to create new grade configurations and programming that would better meet student needs.

But others on the board urged caution and said the School Department must ensure there’s an opportunity for full community engagement in any discussion around consolidation or redistricting.

In addition, Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana said there’s clear need for “a deep analysis of the buildings and how they’re being used” before any recommendations could be made in terms of closing schools and moving students.

“There’s nothing more difficult than redistricting,” Botana said at a recent board workshop where members discussed a draft resolution calling for a full review of school boundaries and capacity.

However, he also said the review is necessary to answer the questions that board members, city councilors and even some members of the public “consistently (raise about) whether the current configuration of schools is appropriate, given current enrollment patterns.”

While consolidation of schools is considered first and foremost to be a cost-saving measure, School Board member Laurie Davis said it also represents a chance for the School Department to be “really innovative” and “to look at all of our resources to craft something that meets more student needs.”

At its meeting May 1, the School Board got its first look at the resolution, which in a memo to the board, Botana said “directs staff to develop a workplan to engage the community in a data-driven process to review the district’s current enrollment, school configuration and school boundaries.”

A full discussion of the resolution, including a final vote, is expected to take place at the board’s May 15 meeting, which will be held at 7 p.m. in City Hall.

The data collected would then drive “determinations about whether there are inefficiencies that can be achieved through changes in the school district’s footprint or whether there are programmatic improvements that can be derived from such changes,” the schools chief added.

The resolution calls for the district to present its findings and recommendations to the School Board within six months and would also allow the School Department to hire an outside consultant, as needed.

Botana said the last time the district consolidated its school boundaries or added new schools was during the mid-2000s.

The resolution says that because the Portland Public Schools face “reduced funding from local, state and federal sources,” and given serious “budget concerns created by declining revenues and increasing expenses,” it’s now time to look at “enrollment trends, capacity trends and facility costs.”

However, the resolution also says that the School Board is “committed to maintaining neighborhood cohesion” and that the board “desire(s) to maintain (an enrollment) balance that reflects the diversity of the city.”

The overall goal is for the district to create a five-year plan that relies on current demographic, facilities and enrollment data, according to the resolution.

In addition, the district will also collect cost data that includes how much is needed to operate each school per year and program data that includes the types of programming offered in each building, along with how much space is needed to accommodate those programs.

Transportation will also be reviewed, including a mandate to maximize walkability for students when making consolidation or redistricting recommendations, which includes looking at how much time it takes for students to arrive at school from home.

Another key step the resolution requires is engaging “the community for a better understanding of what the community’s priorities are,” including the use of focus groups, surveys, community meetings, workshops and more.

In reviewing its school boundaries and capacity, the School Department must also “evaluate the distribution of students throughout the city such that each student has access to an equitable physical environment in which to learn no matter where they live,” the resolution says.

During the workshop on how best to approach the possibility of consolidation or redistricting, Davis said it would be critical to “look at this in a positive way,” while also acknowledging that “we may end up not changing a single thing.”

While the School Board wants to keep the process a positive and hopeful one, member Tim Atkinson said he’s already heard “from a number of constituents at Presumpscot Elementary, nervous that (their school) is on the chopping block again.”

“I know we have a fiduciary responsibility to look at the options and think about these things, but we also know that (elementary) schools are the centers of their communities,” he added, while encouraging his fellow board members to be fully cognizant of what closing a school might mean.

Members of the Presumpscot Elementary School community may have reason for concern, especially since in determining the order of schools to be tackled under a $64 million bond that’s paying for upgrades at four of the city’s elementary schools, Botana said it should be the last one.

“Given Presumpscot is the smallest elementary school on the mainland and is cited in every school consolidation conversation, staff believe it would make sense to wait before beginning any rebuilding of this site,” Botana said in a memo to the School Board at its April 24 meeting.

But, David Hopkinson, head of the Family Council at Presumpscot, this week said “we know (the school) can stand on its own statistically as an Expeditionary Learning School, where children from every walk of life are given the opportunity to excel.

“(And), we believe the School Board’s (ultimate) findings will finally put an end to this conversation and Presumpscot can move forward, unfettered, unafraid and reassured of the amazing education it gives the children of this community.”

Hopkinson said the closing of Presumpscot has been a “hot-button idea for well over 10 years and (it’s) absolutely miserable for this conversation to continue to come up. It makes us nervous and concerned for the future of our children’s education, and in many cases is simple conjecture that rips at the heart of our diverse community.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

Portland’s Presumpscot Elementary School could be considered for closure or consolidation under a new plan by the School Board to study school boundaries and facility capacity.