Sarah Lentz, Chair of the Portland Board of Public Education
December 19, 2022
Good evening, Mayor Snyder, City Councilors, and fellow Board members and Portlanders. My name is Sarah Lentz, and I am the Chair of the Portland Board of Public Education. I want to mention my fellow Board members attending tonight (please stand). The Board’s new Vice Chair, Micky Bondo, is traveling and unable to join us tonight. I'll also recognize our Superintendent, staff, and other dedicated members of the Portland Public Schools team, as well as members of the Portland community here today. I’m so grateful to everyone who has joined us and all who support the Portland Public Schools.
Let’s take a moment to land here together. Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Take a breath to become fully present. Take a breath to feel your body and push your feet into the floor, into the land that our city and schools are built upon, the land known collectively as the Wabanaki Confederacy. Take a breath and recognize and thank the original and current inhabitants of this land who are part of our schools and our city. When you are ready, open your eyes. Thank you.
Just two short weeks ago, I was elected by my colleagues to lead this Board, which is charged with the following:
- to be committed to the education of all students
- to have a constant awareness of the concerns and desires of the entire community regarding the quality and performance of the school system;
- and to ensure the employment of a Superintendent who will see that Portland maintains a position as an outstanding school system, and who will provide that leadership under which school personnel will carry out the policies of the Committee with imagination and dedication.
By no means are these three charges simple or easy in a “normal time,” but the last few months (and, in fact, years) have been acutely hard and complex. Given our payroll crisis, the resignation of our Superintendent, and new Board leadership, many people asked if the “State of the Schools” would continue as planned and as the City Charter stipulates. My answer has always been unequivocally yes. I know that everyone in this room understands the importance of the state of our schools — that the state of our schools actually is the state of our students, the state of our staff, the state of our systems and, I would say, the state of our city. Tonight, I’ll be talking about the strengths and challenges I see in these areas and the critical role we all have to play in the state of our schools.
The State of Our Students
First, the State of our Students. One of my favorite parts of being in the community is talking to young people about their schools. I always ask them two questions: First, what is your favorite thing about your school? And second, if you could change one thing about your school, what would it be? More often than not, our young people answer that they want more recess, more art, and longer lunches. Their favorite thing (besides recess and the new Mobile Makerspace) is often a person: a teacher, an ed tech, or a bus driver with whom they have a meaningful relationship. These staff are key elements in our students' successes. Successes like Portland High School senior Liam Fay-LeBlanc's being named a Semifinalist in the 2023 National Merit Scholarship Program in September. Liam is among only 51 Maine seniors named as Semifinalists in the 2023 contest.
Or the Deering High School Debate Team, who triumphed in the State Championship Tournament this past February. Deering’s freshmen debaters swept the novice bracket, and the team’s co-captains won first place in the varsity bracket, with the team as a whole winning the sportsmanship award.
Also at Deering, the Black Student Union is thriving. They have hosted Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives Rachel Talbot Ross, newly elected Mana Abdi, Reverend Lewis, and City Councilors Ali and Pelletier. They also organized a fundraiser to sell both sweet treats and sambusas.
Casco Bay High School seniors created a pop-up museum containing their own artwork, titled: "Art in Action: Responding to Israel and Palestine."
After several years of planning, Portland Arts and Technology High School students built a sugarhouse and collected, hauled, and boiled over 400 gallons of maple sap!
In terms of adult education: With substantial new funding, more of our over 2,000 racially and linguistically diverse students at Portland Adult Education can take advantage of programming aimed at better integrating English language acquisition with digital skills building, workforce training opportunities in the healthcare industry, and an internship to employment program with Hannaford Supermarkets that attracts and recruits foreign-born candidates with professional backgrounds to retail leadership.
But even as our students accomplish incredible things, they continue to face challenges.
There are persistent, significant inequities in educational outcomes, discipline, and attendance between our economically disadvantaged students (who are mostly students of color, English language learners, and students with disabilities) and our more advantaged students (who tend to be white). These inequities only increase when students hold more than one marginalized identity. And many of these students don't see themselves represented at school: In a district that is almost 50% students of color, less than 10% of our staff are people of color. These patterns are not new or unique to the Portland Public Schools. They have existed for decades in school systems across the state and nation.
But the Portland Public Schools made eliminating these inequities a priority, and rightly so. For the past five years, we have dedicated significant investments to support our students and to improve our staff’s equity literacy. This year’s $133.1 million school budget, which was resoundingly approved by voters in June, allows us not to backslide on those equity investments. That responsible budget balanced fiscal constraints — including a $2.6 million reduction in state education aid — with maintaining current programs and services and covering higher costs for salaries, benefits, and debt service. It's worth noting that the budget percent increase was considerably lower than the rate of inflation over this past year.
These are all very important steps toward achieving equity, but addressing systemic problems does not happen overnight. We recognize that there is much more work to do to support students who have long been marginalized in our community and society at large. While the Board has passed policy after policy aiming to dismantle systems and structures that perpetuate inequities in our schools, particularly for students and staff of color, we know that changing policy is not enough — we must shift culture, and that is much more difficult.
Our middle-schoolers organized and protested this past spring to communicate that we aren’t moving fast enough on this objective and to remind us that racism, sexism, genderism, ableism, and other forms of oppression are affecting them every day in their schools. Students and alumni, we hear you and pledge to do better and more. Thank you all for being part of what makes our schools so wonderful.
The State of Our Staff
Now, the State of our Staff. In the Portland Promise, one of our top priorities is our People. “We seek to attract, support, and retain talented and diverse faculty and staff who leverage their strengths to achieve our shared goals.” In obvious ways, like winning competitive awards, and in less visible ones, such as ensuring that students have winter boots and coats, our staff demonstrate their strengths around the clock. Here are a few examples of how our staff continue to show up:
The crossing guard at Ocean Avenue Elementary School, Ms. Gwen. She knows the names of most students who walk to school, and I have never seen her offer less than a smile and a cheerful “good morning!” — even on the coldest, dreariest days. Her positivity radiates and sets the tone for the day, welcoming students and their families.
Casco Bay High School social studies teacher Matt Bernstein, was named 2023 Maine Teacher of the Year this fall. Maine Education Commissioner Pender Makin called Matt, who also was the 2022 Cumberland County Teacher of the Year, an “amazing teacher," while students describe him as “energizing, empowering, inclusive, responsive, and genuine.” Matt makes the fifth Portland Public Schools educator named Maine Teacher of the Year and/or County Teacher of the Year within the past decade.
Recently, a parent described to me how their child's teacher creates a safe and healthy learning environment. Her child recounted to her that whenever someone is having a hard time in class, the teacher has a quiet moment alone with them to help them calm down and apologize without being forced. According to the 7-year-old, the rest of the class then offers a chorus of acceptance, forgiveness, and support to the apologizing child for "being brave."
The teacher at Talbot Community School who celebrated the first snow by creating a Glow Party — students walked into a glowing classroom full of black light and a disco ball!
Other notable accolades this year include: Special education teacher Ellen Flores of Lincoln Middle School receiving the 2022 Maine Psychological Association Educator Recognition Award for her commitment to advancing positive mental and behavioral health outcomes for Maine students. And Talbot Community School teacher Cindy Soule earned a Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching from the National Science Foundation. There are so many other Portland Public schools staff who deserve recognition — I wish I could list them all, because there are so, so many.
On a broader and more concrete level, Portland Public Schools successfully achieved three new collective bargaining agreements over the past year. In January, we approved a two-year contract with our BASE union, which represents staff that include bus drivers, custodians, food service workers, computer technicians, and administrative assistants. After a two-year delay, we also approved a three-year contract with the Portland Educational Association for Educational Technicians. Finally this year we approved a three-year contract with the Portland Education Association (PEA), which represents our district’s teachers. I’d like to acknowledge Kerrie Dowdy, PEA president, and Jen Cooper, the Ed Tech Union President, who are here tonight. Kerrie and Jen, please raise your hands. Thank you both for all you have given to our district and your commitment to building a strong and meaningful relationship with the Board.
We are grateful to these bargaining groups for collaborating with us to arrive at agreements. All three contracts recognize the essential work these employees do to help our students succeed; they also increase wages during a highly competitive hiring landscape.
Much like the City’s employment experience, the extraordinary labor shortage continues to challenge the Portland Public Schools in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. We simply don't have enough educational technicians, substitute teachers, or bus drivers, among other crucial staff. We have had to cancel bus routes as a result and encourage families to carpool or have their students ride METRO buses, whose fares we subsidize. We have also had to redistribute staff when needed and cancel programming when staff are sick or unable to work.
In response to the labor shortage, we are hosting monthly hiring fairs; temporarily awarding staff referral fees; and offering hiring and retention incentives for bus drivers. We also are continuing to invest in ways for interested ed techs to become certified to teach. While these initiatives have had a positive impact, staff continue to feel the strain as they stretch to fill the occupancies.
Related to the staffing shortage, our people continue to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. Just last week, an educator told me it seems like the world has moved on while she feels the impacts of COVID daily, from learning loss to the social, emotional, and mental health challenges students continue to confront. As you all know, COVID conditions vary from month to month, week to week, and even day to day. Overall, our multi-layered approach to the pandemic — including pooled testing, vaccines and boosters, indoor masking, symptom checks, maximizing physical distancing, and outdoor learning — helped to limit transmission and keep our schools safe. As always, we look to state medical experts and the CDC to inform our policies especially as we are now confronting a surge of the flu and other communicable illnesses.
Despite the easing of COVID restrictions, the learning loss wrought by the pandemic continues. To address it, we expanded and diversified our 2022 summer offerings, using Federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSERF) resources to operate the largest summer program in our history. 2,515 students participated, up nearly 350 students from the previous year. We held school-based programs at elementary, middle, and high schools that were specifically designed for the needs of those ages. We also deepened our collaboration with community partners like Portland Housing Authority and Rippleffect, hosting summer camps and tutoring. The staff who planned and executed this programming are remarkable — they invested hours into removing barriers, engaging with families and community to maximize how many students could participate.
I want to express my deepest gratitude to all of our Portland Public Schools people — our incredible educators and other staff — for their tremendous efforts throughout this pandemic. If any teachers or staff are present, please raise your hand — thank you. Since the day in March 2020 when we first closed our schools due to COVID, our community has asked our staff to pivot over and over and do more and more with less. Yet they have worked incredibly hard amid evolving circumstances to ensure that our students both stay safe and learn. Our employees are the glue that holds our schools together, and we are so thankful for ALL that they do.
The State of our Systems
And now to one of the most pressing issues currently facing the district — the State of our Systems. As most of you are aware, our payroll system has been in crisis for weeks. While we are slowly and intentionally working our way back to ensuring every employee is made whole, and while many employees' pay issues and questions have been resolved, PPS employees experienced upheaval and undue stress because of both this issue and the way we responded to it. For that, we are sorry.
We are still learning about the factors that contributed to this failure, but we do know this.
When we initially set up our payroll system many years ago, we did not do it correctly for the nuanced ways our staffing is structured. Additionally, staffing problems were a major factor — our payroll department was understaffed as a result of turnover this summer and then an unexpected medical leave. This resulted in the district having no dedicated payroll staff in early October.
When trying to fill these holes, the district subsequently learned that numerous systems for capturing pay requests existed outside the main payroll system and these requests were manually input for each payroll cycle. A lack of employee training and clear understanding of our payroll processes, a payroll system that was not fully built-out as well as gaps in process documentation have made it difficult for others to step in and support the payroll department. Then the situation was exacerbated by our network hardware failing in mid-November.
There are a series of steps we have taken and are taking to make sure every one of employees is paid accurately and that we reimburse those who have incurred fees and penalties due to our errors. We worked with the Portland Education Association, which represents our teachers and ed techs, to develop a Memorandum of Understanding outlining our obligations to make right with our employees our inability to pay them in a timely way. We have also extended these steps to any other employees affected by payroll issues.
Because of PEA’s advocacy, we have entered into an agreement with Spinglass Consulting to conduct a forensic analysis of our payroll systems and records, hopefully to be completed this month. Spinglass will also review our processes and make recommendations for improving them. We will pay any fines as required by law or by agreements with our collective bargaining units that stem from delays in paychecks. Additionally, we have established a fund, managed by our attorney’s office, to reimburse all staff for any late fees, overdrafts, penalties, or interest charges resulting from any documented delay in paying staff.
We pulled HR and non-payroll Finance staff to maximize the number of knowledgeable folks with system access working directly to fix these problems. Some of their ordinary responsibilities are deferred, but we’ve made payroll our priority. We brought in someone from the payroll software company to embed with our team as well as highly skilled temporary staff. The district’s senior leadership staff have all gone out to every school to listen to people's concerns, document them, and assure staff that Central Office is focused on solutions. The City finance staff have been incredibly helpful and are offering time, resources, and support to assist us. The Board is also visiting every school and will continue to meet with any school or group that would like to meet to start to earn back the trust and relationships that have been lost during the pandemic and this crisis.
While the district has repeatedly communicated with staff over the past few weeks to explain the situation, the communications didn’t come as early or as frequently as they should have, and there understandably has been a significant amount of frustration and disappointment from many of our employees. As I said at a recent Board meeting, we have failed our staff. However, we have now made it our first order of business to resolve these issues, and we will continue to do all we can to repair the damage done and restore employee trust.
Moving forward, we will be prioritizing redundancy in our essential functions, as also indicated in our recent audit. Critical systems like payroll must not rest on any single employee's shoulders. Our systems must be documented and have controls. City employees have also been extremely helpful in identifying potential resources to help us in this process and we are incredibly grateful for their support. Outside of our payroll and essential system work, the Board approved changing the district’s high school preference process, beginning with current eighth-graders. Portland students traditionally are able to choose whether they want to attend Portland or Deering High Schools. Casco Bay High School, which is smaller and enrolls only 100 students per grade, uses a lottery system if it has more than 95 applicants for its freshman class. Because Deering and Portland have no cap on the number of students admitted, this has led to fluctuations at those schools over time. Sometimes the fluctuations are very high, which has led to an unequal distribution of resources (such as staff and course offerings) between Portland and Deering and significant variance in the student composition, with Portland being less racially diverse than the district overall. Under the new high school preference plan, most students will get their first choice of school, but some may not in order to keep the two schools' enrollment roughly equal and reduce demographic disparities. The Board in October also passed a resolution to work with administration to further analyze how our high schools can be better aligned. The goal is to develop more consistent programming and opportunities for all students across all three high schools. The Board has charged our Policy and Curriculum Committee with developing and delivering a report to the full Board by June 2023 on the elements for alignment, the benchmarks for successful implementation of those elements, and a timeline.
In really great news about our systems:
Talbot Community School, one of our district’s most diverse schools, received substantial funding to use toward its “community schools” work. A community school is a public school that serves as the hub of its neighborhood, uniting families, educators, and community partners to promote equity and educational excellence for each and every child. This grant will support increased staffing for Talbot's Beyond the Bell programs, which provide students a safe environment and activities after school. Also recently, a statewide report found that PPS is an exception to its conclusion that most Maine schools are failing to incorporate Wabanaki Studies 21 years after the passage of a landmark 2001 state law requiring them to do so. The report cites how PPS has "collaborated with Wabanaki tribes and experts to reconfigure their curriculum with Wabanaki Studies at the core.” A coalition of teachers, students, parents, and community partners, along with tribal advisers, continues to develop a preK-12 Wabanaki Studies curriculum that will weave Wabanaki studies into a variety of subjects. The hope is to launch the curriculum in all district classrooms by the 2024-25 school year, but learning about the Wabanaki, or “People of the Dawnland,” is already underway in many classrooms. We also plan to share our Wabanaki curriculum statewide.
The district’s Food Service department, in partnership with local nonprofits and consultants, introduced culturally important menu items to high school lunch options this fall. Dishes like a North African-inspired chicken and kale stew were enthusiastically endorsed by students during tastings this past spring. The project is funded by Full Plates, Full Potential and led by the PPS Food Service and local food justice nonprofit Cultivating Community, with implementation help from several other community partners.
In terms of our physical systems and infrastructure, we have continued to make steady progress this year on the renovations of Reiche, Presumpscot, and Longfellow Elementary Schools, after completing Lyseth Elementary School's last fall. Once co mpleted, we will finally be providing students at these schools the 21st-century learning environments they need and deserve. We are so grateful to our community for their commitment to supporting these projects and to our teachers and staff for tolerating the ongoing construction.
As we all know, the change in the City Charter for school budget autonomy did not pass. Still, we hope the issues raised during the debate on Question 5 will yield a better structure in the school budget process within the existing Charter. We look forward to working with Mayor Snyder, the Council, and City staff to start those budget conversations early. I’m optimistic that we can develop a process that is more accessible to the public, strengthens our relationship with the city so it is one of true collaboration, and enables the Board and Council to come together make better decisions for our city as a whole.
And finally, to our Superintendent. As I’m sure you know, Superintendent Xavier Botana had planned to step down at the end of this school year, after seven years of dedicated service to our community. In light of the district's payroll crisis, however, Superintendent Botana offered his resignation to the Board on December 16. We accepted his resignation, to take effect as of January 31 or when an interim superintendent is secured (whichever is earlier). We are immensely grateful to Superintendent Botana for his deep contributions to the district and appreciate his ongoing support during this period of transition. His vision and work will continue to move us forward and we will ensure our next Superintendent has an equal commitment to equity.
Our Superintendent Search Committee, made up of eight representatives of stakeholder groups in the PPS community and five Board members, recently hired Alma Advisory Group, a professional search firm whose work is in alignment with our equity goal. Led by women of color, Alma focuses on organizational capacity building and equity and diversity in hiring. It recently completed superintendent searches for the Denver Public Schools, the Cincinnati Public Schools, and Eugene School District 4. Alma uses competency-based screening processes to mitigate bias and stay grounded in the skills most important to the role. As co-chair of this committee, I’ll be meeting with them this week to start to plan focus groups and community gatherings so this search can be deeply informed by our community. We expect the new superintendent to be hired by May and fully take the reins of the district on July 1, 2023. We'll pay Alma’s $48,000 fee out of the Board’s contingency fund.
Looking ahead, we as a Board and district have a lot of work to do as we continue to center equity and strive to meet our other Portland Promise goals. But as a reminder, we live in this city together. Portland is a city with profound diversity and cultural opportunities, and physical beauty. This past May, U.S. News & World Report named Portland one of the top 10 best cities to live, and quality of education was one of the key metrics used in determining the 2022-2023 rankings.
Schools are an essential part of this city, attracting the families and people that ensure its continuation. But as schools nurture and enliven our communities, so, too, do our communities enrich our schools. Our students cannot learn and grow in the classroom if they are struggling at home. Teachers and staff cannot focus on their critical careers if they don't earn a living wage. Without city services, students and staff would lack transportation, nutrition, healthcare, internet access, books, and more. Let us remember that the city and its schools are inextricably linked, not opposing entities but rather close collaborators. I bring this up specifically because the end of the Emergency Rental Assistance Program is on the horizon and represents financial and housing insecurity for many members of our community, and our students, staff, and schools will suffer as a result. Amid historic inflation and high fuel costs, the months to come will carry hardship and heartbreak for so many of our families like we have never seen before.
The disparities we seek to minimize through the strategy of the Portland Promise are tied deeply to what goes on in our communities. The roots of these inequities are complex and beyond what any school district can solve alone. Recently, I talked to a music teacher from one of our schools. They told me that they ask the young people in their class to come in ready to be an ensemble. Each young person is asked to bring their strengths into the classroom, to play their part the best that they can, and work with the others to form an ensemble — a collective whole that surpasses any single individual. I invite all of you to be part of our ensemble and invest time, courage, steadfast commitment, and resources so that we can accomplish the goal we all share: achieving equitable, successful outcomes for all students in the Portland Public Schools.
Thank you and goodnight.