Portland schools brace for higher enrollment; superintendent decries funding formula change

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PORTLAND — After the closing of the parochial Cathedral School this spring, the Portland Public Schools are bracing for an uptick in enrollment.

At the same time, the School Department is already preparing for a change in the state’s school funding formula that’s expected to cost the district $1 million in the 2012-2013 school year.

Superintendent James C. Morse Sr. said the approximately 90 Cathedral School students in kindergarten through eighth grade will be spread throughout the district.

“About a third of them are peninsula kids, two-thirds are off-peninsula,” Morse said.

The most concentrated impact, he said, will likely be to East End Community School, where he plans to hire two additional teachers to maintain class sizes.

“We’re still a month away from knowing what the real impact is,” Morse said late last month.

Part of the reason for the delay is the fact that parents of students who attend East End, Reiche and Riverton schools tend to wait until late August or even early September to enroll their children in kindergarten.

Morse attributed this to the high number of immigrant families whose students attend those schools and who might not know how and when to register their children for school.

The district switched to a central registration system this year in an attempt to keep better track of enrollment numbers and the needs of students who are enrolled.

Morse said the number of English Language Learners enrolled in kindergarten has increased every year. In anticipation of that steady increase, the district added four ELL teachers in this year’s budget and eight ELL teachers in last year’s budget.

“(ELL students) are 25 percent of our student population,” Morse said.

ELL teachers and programs are paid for almost entirely by grants and state and federal funds, he added, meaning the impact on the local tax base is not as concentrated.

While the district does not have a set maximum for class size, Morse said he prefers to keep elementary school classes under 25 students. At the last School Board meeting before the July recess, the board approved adding a teacher at Presumpscot Elementary School to keep class sizes below 27.

Morse also expressed frustration with a bill pushed through the state Senate at the end of the recent session that changes the school funding formula for the 2012-2013 school year, shifting state funds from urban schools to schools in rural Maine.

“(Senate President Kevin) Raye really politicized the funding formula for the first time ever,” Morse said of the bill’s sponsor, a Republican from the Washington County town of Perry. “He has opened up the funding formula to political shenanigans.”

Morse said any reductions as a result of the change next year would be spread throughout the district’s various cost centers.

“They are playing a game with children’s lives for political gain,” Morse said. “It was a horrible political decision, one of the worst I’ve seen in my career.”

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or eparkhurst@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @emilyparkhurst.