Superintendent's Notebook: My toughest assignment

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Crafting a budget for the next school year was the most difficult assignment of my 22-year career.

The Portland Public Schools face the loss of more than $6 million in state and federal funds. That forced us to make painful cuts, including a reduction of nearly 81 positions. Voluntary retirements will help reduce the number of layoffs, but we still face a significant reduction in force.

Even in these difficult financial times, my proposed budget helps the schools move forward in key areas such as pre-kindergarten, literacy in kindergarten through grade two, the elementary world language program, math instruction for grades six through eight, our high school program, maintenance and technology.

Many of those initiatives reflect community priorities identified through the district’s 2009 Future Search event and crystallized by the district’s new mission, vision and core belief statements. Through this budget, we will continue our efforts to provide a challenging, relevant and joyful education that empowers every learner to make a difference in the world. 

Early childhood education is one of the long-term solutions to Portland’s high school completion rate and dropout problem. Our preschool effort builds upon partnerships with other community providers such as Head Start and Catherine Morrill Pre-School. My budget proposes expanding such partnerships to include Governor Baxter School for the Deaf and others.

My budget also proposes the realignment of our literacy program in kindergarten through grade two to reflect best practices. I’ve recommended that we adopt a common text for teaching of phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension in grades K-2. All elementary schools will have a certified reading teacher to support our classroom teachers and to increase student achievement.

My proposed budget continues our commitment to an elementary world language program. This is year two of a three-year plan to implement Spanish in grades three, four and five. Portland already is a multilingual community. Preparing our students for the future requires a comprehensive approach to teaching world language from elementary through high school.

My budget begins the process of purchasing new textbooks for mathematics, starting at the middle schools. Our goals are to assure that every child has a consistent program and that we are preparing students to meet high expectations. Along with the new texts, we will provide staff training, common assessments and opportunity for collaboration between middle-level math teachers.

Our high schools are the most expensive to operate. To optimize efficiency, my budget continues the work toward a common high school schedule. This approach, often referred to as the “campus” approach, allows students to take courses from any one of the four high schools. A common schedule reduces the number of duplicated courses, increases the length of the school day and maintains advanced and honors courses.

For years, Portland has woefully underfunded preventive maintenance and capital improvements. Due to lack of funding, many of our buildings are in awful shape. Most notable is Hall Elementary School, built as a temporary structure for returning GIs after World War II. Hall needs to be replaced. Other buildings needing serious attention include West, Presumpscot, Reiche, Lyseth, and Longfellow. My budget increases funds for maintenance and capital investment, but nowhere near the level that is necessary.

Technology is critical in a 21st century education. Our technology investment mirrors maintenance efforts – too little, too late. My budget increases marginally our commitment to technology.

My budget now is in the hands of the School Board. The board will hold hearings and public meetings before adopting a budget. It then will go to the City Council for more public hearings and a vote. The final budget will be voted on by all city residents in a May 10th referendum.

Please get involved by making your views known to your elected officials. The 7,000 children who will attend our city schools next fall deserve the best-researched practices, the best-trained staff, and the best programs that we can offer.

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James C. Morse Sr. is Portland’s superintendent of schools. His column runs monthly in The Forecaster and on theforecaster.net. He can be reached at morsej@portlandschools.org.

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