Portland school chief 'very concerned' about upcoming budget constraints

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PORTLAND — Superintendent of Schools James C. Morse Sr. used a welcome-back breakfast Tuesday morning at the Portland Expo to call on school staff to find and embrace “a better approach” to delivering public education.

Morse, who became superintendent on July 1, started the breakfast with a short exercise. Shortly after everyone took their seats among familiar faces, everyone was told to get up and sit with people they didn’t know.

“It’s important for everyone to step outside of their comfort zone,” Morse said.

And while much of the 2 1/2-hour breakfast focused on ways to build better relationships with, and set higher expectations for, students and teachers, Morse closed the event by laying out the cold, hard truth of the upcoming budget to the more than 1,000 people in attendance. 

After noting that the state has increased education spending by $250 million over the last 10 years, Morse said Department of Education Commissioner Susan Gendron indicated last week that state will likely issue another curtailment to education funding this fiscal year and maybe beyond. That funding cut will ultimately force staff to step out of their comfort zones and rethink the way public education is provided.

“There will never be a time when money will flow from the city or Augusta as it did in the past,” Morse said. “I am very, very concerned about the budget I am about to develop.”

Last year, the state made a $1.8 million mid-year cut in education funding, forcing the School Department to consider teacher furlough days and cuts to athletic programs. Ultimately, the measures were never instituted because new federal funding filled the gap.  

“I wish I could stand in front of you and say it’s over, but it’s not,” Morse said. “We are going to be in a tough situation again this year.”

Since Portland has no cash reserves to fall back on, every dollar of the district’s $91 million budget is allocated for a specific use.

Morse said Portland needs to avoid “needless duplication” of services so the district can maximize the amount of money being invested into the classroom and professional development. Portland is looking to regionalize some services, such as transportation and vocational and online learning, with South Portland and Westbrook, and Morse said other school districts have expressed an interest in joining the group. 

But Morse indicated Portland would have to look internally to deal with the reduction in funding.

“I think there is a better approach to the way we do things,” he said. 

Morse set a Thanksgiving deadline for high school principals to develop a common school-day schedule, so the schools can share classes, students and teachers beginning with the 2010-2011 school year.

“They must develop a consensus schedule that emphasizes the student’s needs,” he said. “That is absolutely non-negotiable.”

Meanwhile, principals and teachers from the city’s 10 elementary schools have been directed to develop a district-wide curriculum, so each student receives the same educational opportunities, regardless of which school they attend. Educational inequity has been a longstanding concern among some School Committee members, parents and teachers.

Addressing large elementary class sizes will also be a priority during the next budget, Morse said, drawing strong applause. 

Morse also lamented the state of school facilities, which he said “shocked” him when he first arrived in the district. But he said it will be years before the district will be able to fully address those needs. 

However, Morse, who said he would like to be Portland’s superintendent for “many years,” tried to reassure school staff that his decisions will be driven by what is best for the students. 

“I want you to know that the center of my universe is children,” he said. “When I look at numbers, I see students. When I see buildings, I see the people who inhabit them.”

Despite the gloomy economic outlook, much of Tuesday’s event was light-hearted, with Morse relating his life story and talking about people who inspired him. At several points he stopped his speech to ask each table to respond to a question he posed. Then, after leaving the stage, Morse jogged from table to table with a wireless microphone soliciting responses. 

Morse invited all levels of school staff, from custodians to administrators, to the breakfast as a way to display School Department unity. With classes starting on Thursday, it seemed as though very few people were absent. 

“We all share in success of the Portland school system,” Morse said. “Each of us has an opportunity to make a positive difference. Or not.” 

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


p-backtoschoolbreakfast1.JPGSuperintendent James Morse addresses more than 1,000 school employees Tuesday morning at a back-to-school breakfast at the Portland Expo.

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p-backtoschoolbreakfast3.JPGSuperintendent James Morse chats with Maryann Brown, a math teacher at Deering High School, while guests begin to arrive at a back-to-school breakfast Tuesday morning at the Portland Expo.