The Portland School District is launching a major review of facilities that may propose school closures or redistricting as a way to reduce costs, after the latest bruising school budget season.
The fast-tracked plan, due in January, is intended to give district and city officials more options financially when the next school budget cycle starts in the spring.
“The goal is to reduce costs by rightsizing the district,” Superintendent Xavier Botana said. “These decisions are going to have impact on the future direction of the district.”
The Portland Board of Public Education will hold a workshop and public hearing on the project at 6 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall. On Sept. 25, the board is expected to vote on a consulting contract for the comprehensive review and appoint a commission to oversee the work.
“This past year, we made decisions to shorten the school year and to make cuts to some of our programs. Those are decisions we may not have had to make had we done this work,” school board Chairwoman Anna Trevorrow said at a recent workshop about the proposal. “That’s an unfortunate position to be in.”
In recent years, budget tensions have soared as higher school budgets required regular tax hikes, with the local impact compounded as Portland’s higher property valuation triggered a decrease in state education funding. That local tax burden is expected to increase in future years as Portland’s property valuation continues to rise.
In each of the recent budget cycles, the board has struggled to make cuts to initial budgets, sometimes drawing large crowds of advocates – such as scores of island residents this spring who feared the board may vote to close island schools to save money.
In June, voters approved a $110.6 million school budget that increased the school portion of the tax rate by 5 percent – down from an initial budget proposal of $113.4 million that would have required a 9 percent increase. Of the $110.6 million total, the state provides $13.7 million and the rest is raised locally.
In 2017 the $104.8 million school budget raised the school portion of the tax rate 2.75 percent. In 2016, it was a 2 percent tax rate increase.
Inevitably, during these tense debates, the idea of saving costs by consolidation is raised – but there are not good data to support an informed conversation and not enough time to do the research in time to affect the current budget cycle. That is what led school board leaders to pledge to do that research after the last budget cycle.
In May, the board passed a resolution requiring the superintendent work with a hired consultant to develop a five-year projection, including data on demographics, facilities, enrollment, costs, programming and transportation costs.
The process is being fast-tracked to meet that deadline. Botana told the board that the proposed consulting firm, Davis Demographics, informed him that such an analysis normally takes a year to 18 months to complete. By narrowing the scope of its duties, and taking on some duties in-house such as survey and data analysis, the timeline can be shaved to just four months, he said. The report from the research firm is due to the district by the end of December.
The proposed amount of the contract with Davis Demographics is $190,800.
At the same time, a special commission is meeting to review the data, and will provide a report in late December or early January. In January, Botana will submit the group’s recommendations to the board.
Botana said that the options before the commission and the board to find cost savings are wide open. The district is doing a survey in September seeking community input.
Among the moving parts:
n Island schools: Although most school and city officials oppose the idea of closing the district’s two island schools, the idea usually comes up for discussion because they serve so few students – but advocates say they are critical to a healthy island culture.
n New grade combinations: Botana said they could consider new school combinations – such as K-8 schools, or combining high schools.
n Program consolidation: Underenrolled classes might be consolidated, particularly at the high school level.
n Other buildings: Assessing the value of other district buildings, such as the administration offices and Bayside Learning Center, currently sharing a building on Cumberland Avenue downtown; transportation, food service and adult education facilities. In the last 10 years, food services, adult ed, administration and Bayside Learning all moved to new physical locations, most of them updated and renovated at the time.
n New schools versus old schools: From a facilities standpoint, several buildings are new or recently renovated. Portland used state funding to build the East End Community School in 2006, Ocean Avenue Elementary School in 2011, and Amanda Rowe (formerly Hall) Elementary School, opening this fall.
n Room to grow: In recent discussions about building footprints, officials have discussed trade-offs such as eliminating fields for buildings. Some schools have minimal surrounding space, such as Portland High School and Lincoln and King middle schools, while others have large outdoor areas.
n The four-school bond: Last November, Portland voters approved $64.3 million in bonds to renovate Longfellow, Lyseth, Presumpscot and Reiche elementary schools. Although that process is moving forward – Lyseth is slated to go first with a $15.7 million renovation – there is no legal barrier preventing the commission or board from considering a change to that plan as part of this process, Botana said.
n Redistricting: The last time Portland undertook redistricting, it was in response to Ocean Avenue Elementary School opening in 2011. Officials at the time thought they would need to redistrict with the new school, but enrollment growth put it on the back burner. When Ocean Avenue opened, it was almost immediately overcrowded. A slight adjustment to neighborhood boundaries was done. Redistricting is usually very contentious under any circumstances, but in Portland there is particular tension as many parents move to specific neighborhoods for the schools and there is strong support for walkable neighborhood schools – a longtime top priority for the school board – versus cost-conscious support for bigger, centralized schools. Officials haven’t significantly redrawn district lines since the 1990s.
n Shifting demographics: Portland’s population centers and demographics have also fluctuated in recent years, in part due to the movement of immigrant families, housing costs and development. Soaring rental and home purchase prices, the impact of rental housing converting to AirBnB units and other factors affect the number of students in local schools.
“This is a monumental task ahead,” school board member Marnie Morrione said. “In all of the years I’ve been on the board, we’ve skirted around this topic, this work, and finally we’re digging in.”