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Superintendent Letter - October 14, 2022

Oct. 14, 2022

Dear Portland Public Schools families, staff and community members,

I’ll begin with an update about our recent decision to limit attendance at high school athletic events to students from the host school, as we announced in a letter to families on Sept. 30. I apologize that the decision appeared sudden and was not effectively communicated.

We held a presentation about  this new athletic attendance policy at the Oct. 11 Board of Public Education meeting. As we explained there, this decision was not made lightly – it was arrived at after a deliberative process led by our school leaders and athletic directors. It became necessary after student altercations, particularly at our football games, resulted in students needing medical care. These incidents involved students who did not attend the schools where they took place. The policy change is aimed at calming the current situation down as we work together as a community to build a culture of safety around our athletic events. 

I want to make clear that we consider this an interim measure. School leaders will be engaging students and parents next week, looking ahead to determine how to ensure a fun and safe athletic experience for everyone for the playoffs and winter season.

At that same meeting, the Board voted unanimously to pass a high school alignment resolution. This resolution dovetails with a plan to change the district’s new high school preference process that the Board approved Sept. 20. The high school alignment resolution commits the district to taking a closer look at ensuring consistent programming and opportunities for students across all three high schools. The Board also voted to add language to the resolution directing the superintendent to pursue all opportunities for state funding to address the large capital needs of our high schools. That includes applying to the state to build a new consolidated state-of-the-art high school for our district that includes Portland and Deering high schools, PATHS and Portland Adult Education. Read on in this newsletter to learn more.

I’m thrilled that Matt Bernstein, a humanities teacher at Casco Bay High School, was  named the 2023 Maine Teacher of the Year earlier this week. Matt is truly an exceptional teacher.  

What sets him apart and  makes him uniquely positioned to represent our profession is his uncanny ability to live out his values and convictions while also engaging with those who have different perspectives in a way that encourages civil dialogue. At a time where educators in so many places are under attack for holding and sharing their convictions, Matt shows how a skilled educator can enable both truth telling and civil discourse. I had the privilege of being the parent of a student in Matt’s class a few years ago, and my son is a better person for having been a member of his learning community.

The People goal in the Portland Promise, our strategic plan, commits us to attracting and retaining the best and the brightest. Matt is a terrific example of the outstanding educators we are fortunate to have at the Portland Public Schools. Read on in this newsletter to learn more about Matt and other PPS educators who also have won Maine Teacher of the Year honors.

While we are proud of our amazing team, labor shortages across the region and country have made fully staffing our district a challenge this year.  We are taking steps to address our staff shortages. They include:

  • Increasing substitute wages on an interim basis for this school year. Effective as of Oct. 3, the daily pay rate for our long-term substitutes is $238; dedicated subs will get $175; state-certified substitutes will be paid $150; and bachelors-degree substitutes will receive $145. Substitutes with lesser credentials will see an increase in their pay to $95 per day.  

  • Hosting a hiring event for anyone who was in our candidate pools but had not been hired for a position that they applied for. The candidates were invited to a central interview to vet them for vacancies across the district. This event yielded a handful of badly needed ed tech and substitute teacher candidates. We are also considering job shares by taking individuals who can only work part-time.

  • Temporarily offering any of our staff who refer a candidate for an educational technician or teacher vacancy a $1,000 referral fee if we hire that person and they complete the school year with us.  

We continue to ask members of our community to please answer the call to serve in this time of need. Whether you can be a substitute or a volunteer, we need everyone who can dedicate themselves to supporting our community’s schools. Please contact your school principal if you can volunteer and go to our Human Resources page for substitute or permanent employment opportunities. PPS needs you!

Oct. 10 was Indigenous Peoples’ Day. In a new report released that day centering on Maine’s 21-year-old law requiring schools to teach about Maine’s Indigenous peoples, known collectively as the Wabanaki, the Portland Public Schools was praised for our work to develop a Wabanaki Studies curriculum. And just last week, we concluded the rollout of an important aspect of our efforts to provide place-based educational experiences for our students that help them to understand and care for the Dawnland. Third-graders across the district were able to engage in a uniform learning experience that took them to the Presumpscot River watershed as part of our cross-disciplinary Wabanaki Studies curriculum. This amazing opportunity showcases the talent and dedication of our internal academic team led by Assistant Superintendent Melea Nalli and her amazing team of educators, particularly Fiona Hopper, Brooke Teller and Katie West. Learn more in this newsletter.

This is National School Lunch Week and next week is National School Bus Safety Week. Our food service and transportation staff  are critical to our ability to run school effectively and receive far less recognition than they deserve for all that they do. I extend my gratitude this month to them, as well as our principals and custodians. Thank you for all that you do to make the Portland Public Schools function every day.

The campaign to pass Question 5 on the November ballot launched last week. I wrote an op-ed in favor of the question that ran in the Portland Press Herald today. The piece is titled: “‘Yes’ on Question 5 will let our school board do its job.” I also will be devoting my October Forecaster column next week to the Question 5 topic. 

The Portland Public Schools Parent University will be hosting a Zoom session for the public to learn about the pros and cons of Question 5. That session is scheduled for Oct. 26 at 6:30 p.m. This Parent U event is intended to be educational with both sides of the issue given balanced time and visibility. We hope you will join us to learn about this important Charter Commission recommendation. 

Sincerely, 

Xavier Botana, Superintendent