Portland Board of Public Education Chair Sarah Lentz presented the 2023 State of the Schools address to the City Council and the public on Monday, Dec. 18. The City Charter requires that the Board chair deliver an annual address to the Council on the state of the public education system in Portland. Here's a summary of her presentation (and you can also click on links below to read the full address and watch on YouTube).
Lentz began by acknowledging Maine’s Indigenous peoples and segued into a brief history of the Portland Public Schools.
“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, unceded land of the Wabanaki, the people of dawn,” she said. “This is the same land that schools were built on before Maine had even pursued statehood. In the 1700s, we saw our first staffed school house in Portland. In 1821, Portland High School was founded, and it is now the second-oldest continuously operating public high school in the U.S. Over the last several hundred years, the district has grown and evolved in various ways and based on numerous social and political issues. Our district has navigated racial and gender segregation, tensions between state and local control, inadequate funding, and many other challenges.”
She continued: “Today, the Portland Public Schools is Maine's largest school district, with 10 elementary schools — two of which are on islands — three middle schools, and four high schools, plus Maine’s largest adult education program, Portland Adult Education. All of the buildings that hold our schools are essential in creating structure and providing safe places to learn, but it is the people in these buildings who are the true core of our district. It is the people who move us through our challenges, who celebrate our successes, and who really represent the state of our schools. These people — over 6600 students, 2000 adult learners, more than 1500 staff, and countless family and community members — is where the State of our Schools lies.”
She cited many awards and accolades that show the accomplishments of the district’s students. She also noted, “Our students embody remarkable diversity. In the whitest state in the country, our student body speaks over 50 languages, with thirty percent of them actively learning English. Fifty-two percent of our students are students of color. Eighteen percent are supported by special education services, and 7% are experiencing homelessness. All of these layers of diversity create a unique and rich environment for our students to learn in.”
Lentz next focused on staff recognitions and awards. Among staff she recognized was Joshua Chard, a second- and third-grade looping teacher at East End Community School, who rose from being named 2023 Cumberland County Teacher of the Year in May to being selected as the 2024 Maine Teacher of the Year in October.
She added, “This is the third time in the past four years that a Portland Public Schools teacher has achieved this honor. Matt Bernstein, a humanities teacher at Casco Bay High School, is the 2023 Maine Teacher of the Year, and Cindy Soule, the district’s literacy coordinator, was the 2021 Maine Teacher of the Year.”
Lentz also spoke about hiring a new superintendent this past summer. “Dr. Ryan Scallon became the new superintendent of the Portland Public Schools this summer following a unanimous Board vote on June 6. Dr. Scallon, most recently an assistant superintendent in the School District of Philadelphia, holds a doctorate in education. He emerged as our top choice from an initial nationwide pool of 47 applicants. The Board believed and now sees that Ryan embodies the skills needed to move our district forward.”
Lentz next cited an approaching construction milestone. “This spring renovations will be completed on all four aging elementary schools for which city voters in 2017 approved a $64 million Buildings for Our Future bond,’ Lentz said. “Renovations to Lyseth Elementary School were completed in 2021; work at Presumpscot Elementary School finished this past summer; renovations to Longfellow Elementary School were completed this fall with only small items remaining, and Reiche Elementary School's remodel will be finished this spring. These improvements represent a major step toward providing 21st century learning environments for all our students.”
She also referenced challenges during the past year and outlined steps taken to resolve them. “The immense strengths of our students and staff have kept us moving forward even during the hardest periods of this past year,” Lentz said. “As you’ll remember, during last year's state of the schools, the district was experiencing major turmoil as our payroll and surrounding systems were failing and our superintendent had resigned. We were lucky to have Aaron Townsend and Malea Nali lead the district until Dr. Scallon came onboard. Under their combined leadership, we have made significant progress on our operations and systems.”
This school year, she said, “we hired a new Executive Director of Budget and Finance, Helene DiBartolomeo, who has been working tirelessly to help move us from one payroll system to another. We are on track to have our first payroll run in January through the new payroll system, ADP. This has not been an easy process at all. If you remember, part of the reason payroll failed was that the system had not been set up properly from the start. In migrating to ADP, we’ve been cleaning data and codifying systems across the district to make sure the data going into ADP is accurate now and set up to be accurate in the future. If you’ve ever been part of the process of changing payroll systems, you know it is grueling, and there are many opportunities for errors. We know our first payroll on the new system won’t be entirely correct, but we are doing everything in our power to get it as close to right as we can.”
Lentz added, “In addition to migrating to this new system, we’ve continued to work with BerryDunn to make sure all remaining issues from last year have been rectified.”
In addition, she said, the district “also embarked on a strategic planning process to set our course for the next five years. She said it will be grounded in the Listen and Learn that Superintendent Scallon conducted during his first months in the district, and survey data, “and the development process is being guided by the Strategic Plan Steering Committee — a diverse, city-wide group of stakeholders that includes Vice Chair Bondo and me. We met to identify five-year goals and the priorities and initiatives that the district will deliver on to achieve the goals. At the end of the strategic planning process, we will have outcome-oriented goals for the next five years and a limited number of high-impact strategies to achieve those goals. There will be additional opportunity for community input on the strategic plan from focus groups in January and February 2024, as well as through a community survey. The outcome of this work will also be used in our budget process to guide our spending.”
She focused on the challenges facing the upcoming 2024-2025 budget. “And speaking of budgets, like the City’s budget, this year’s is looking grim. Early estimates have us looking straight at a deficit of at least $10 million. This deficit arises from three different causes:
1. Increased costs to existing, mandatory expenses like special education costs, increased salaries and benefits, and debt service.
2. Elimination of federal funding tied to COVID-19 ESSER funding. All of these funds must be spent by September of 2024.
3. Decreased state funding. One of the biggest factors that determines state funding to schools is local property value. With our property values going up, the state assumes more can be funded on a local level. Without changes to that formula, we see this as a trend that will continue beyond this year.”
Lentz continued: “Like last year, we are already working with the City to align our processes and strategy for building this next year’s budget. The good news is that we have healthy fund reserves that can be used to offset some of this deficit, but they cannot cover all of it. About 80% of our budget is directly connected to people costs — salaries and benefits. To balance our budget this coming year, there will be cuts to programming and to staff. As I spent the first half of this speech highlighting, our district is our people, and it’s going to take all of us to get through this. But I know we can.”
At the conclusion of the address, new Mayor Mark Dion noted that, contrary to the belief that the Council and Board of Education “are adversaries,” he considers the two bodies to be partners. He encouraged City Councilor Anna Trevorrow, the new chair of the Council Finance Committee, which reviews the school budget and recommends its bottom line, to “build on that partnership” during this year’s budget process.
PHOTO: Portland Board of Public Education Chair Sarah Lentz