Portland’s State of the Schools: Progress has been made, but buildings aging fast

Posted March 05, 2012, at 8:54 p.m.
Last modified March 06, 2012, at 6:17 a.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — In Portland’s first State of the Schools address, school committee chairwoman Kate Snyder told city councilors and audience members the district has made great strides in recent years, overcoming financial and performance struggles, but still faces great challenges in the form of its aging buildings.

Snyder’s approximately 25-minute speech was the first in what will now be an annual update on the status of education in Maine’s largest city, set into motion through the slate of charter changes passed by city voters in 2010. Those charter changes are more widely known for restoring a publicly elected mayor in Portland after 88 years of the position being appointed by the council.

Michael Brennan, the one who emerged out of 15 candidates in November to claim that new mayor job, said the State of the Schools address is part of a surge toward an “unprecedented cooperative relationship between the school committee and the City Council.”

“We all agree and believe that in order for Portland to thrive and move ahead in the next decade, we need to have a strong school system,” Brennan said Monday night.

In her remarks, Snyder described a district in transition, detailing gains made in bookkeeping and student test scores, noting the development of a comprehensive plan and search for a new superintendent, and raising concern about the state of the district’s aging facilities.

Snyder noted that the district was found to have had “several deficiencies in our audit reports” of 2008, 2009 and 2010 as it climbed out of a surprise $2.5 million budget overrun in fiscal year 2007 under the previous superintendent. But she said that a reformed Finance Department under outgoing Superintendent James Morse reached a clean audit in fiscal year 2011.

Likewise, she said, several years of poor standardized test scores at East End Community and Riverton Elementary schools put the schools on a federal watch list, qualifying them for Significant Improvement Grants. But Snyder noted that the schools implemented new professional improvement strategies funded in part by the federal grants, and New England Common Assessment Program test scores have bounced back — most significantly a bump in reading proficiency among Riverton third-graders from 36 percent in 2010 to 65 percent the next year.

“Being able to move the needle at these two schools is a lesson for the Portland Public Schools throughout the district,” she said.

Uncertainty remains, said Snyder, as the district is searching for a replacement for Morse, who announced plans to step down after three years overhauling the central office, and the school committee is working to develop a longer term comprehensive plan to guide education priorities and initiatives.

But perhaps most troubling, she said, is the state of the district’s facilities.

“We know that the majority of our K-5 schools need investment,” Snyder said, calling the capital needs “significant, and in some cases dire.”

The district applied for state funding through its Major Capital Improvement Program for renovations or replacements of the Fred P. Hall School, as well as Harrison Lyseth, Longfellow and Presumpscot elementary schools, although none of the overhaul projects qualified for program funding in the most recent round of applications.

“The challenge we face as a district is that we have significant facilities needs,” she said.

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