Superintendent's Notebook: Setting budget priorities

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Budgets represent a community’s priorities. As I crafted my 2010-2011 budget for the Portland Public Schools, I faced the challenge of meeting students’ needs and moving our district forward, while keeping costs affordable for taxpayers.

Fortunately, more than 100 residents representing a broad cross-section of our city already had identified priorities for the school district through our recent Future Search event. I took to heart their major recommendations:

• Recognize that education begins at birth and it should include preschool.

• Provide all students equal access to quality education and facilities.

• Give our students access to 21st century technology.

• Prepare students for success in a global marketplace.

• Forge strong partnerships between the schools and community organizations.

• Help all students to graduate and prepare for college or careers.

I knew that addressing all of those goals would be difficult when our district faces cuts of $4.7 million in state and federal aid next year. But I found ways to embed the priorities into my proposed budget.

We have begun exploring how the district can work more closely with Portland’s preschool programs. One possibility is to house some programs in our schools. Strong partnerships will result in a community commitment to preschool programming.

I’ve recommended increasing staffing for elementary classrooms next year and putting in place a three-year plan to reduce class sizes in kindergarten, first and second grades in 2011-2012. Our goal is to have one teacher for every 13 to 17 students in kindergarten, first and second grade classes by fiscal year 2014. That reflects a growing body of research showing that the early elementary grades are critical in determining students’ academic success through high school.

My budget would launch an elementary world languages program. The budget includes money to hire two Spanish teachers for the elementary grades. Our plan is to phase in a world languages program that eventually will serve students in grades three through five. We also are increasing our international offerings by starting the first global studies certificate program in a Maine high school.

My budget expands access to technology by providing wireless service at Longfellow, Lyseth and Hall elementary schools. That will complete the job of making our schools wireless and ensure that all students have an equal opportunity to access technology.

I have addressed equity in several ways through the budget. For example, the budget corrects unequal staffing in some subject areas at our three middle schools. The number of staff members who serve English Language Learners (ELL) declined by 28 percent during the past five years, while the ELL population rose by 50 percent. My budget would boost academic support for those students by adding more ELL teachers. Special education staff will be distributed equitably throughout the system.

Staff cuts are inevitable given our decreasing aid. I have tried to lessen the impact of those cuts as much as possible by using our resources more effectively. My proposal for reorganizing administrative staff will help Central Office support the work of the schools and save nearly $100,000. The proposed common high school schedule framework will allow us to continue offering a wide variety of academic courses and extracurricular activities to students at each of our four high schools more effectively and efficiently.

Our district already works with many community organizations, and we will deepen those ties in the next year. We propose to offset cuts in middle school sports by collaborating with the Portland Recreation Department to make more programming available to that age group.

The proposed budget shouldn’t be viewed as a one-year event, but rather as a multi-year commitment. Each year, we must continue to build a better school system where student performance rises and graduation rates increase.

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James C. Morse Sr. is Portland’s superintendent of schools. His column runs monthly in The Forecaster and on He can be reached at, and you can follow him @jamesmorsesr on Twitter.