PORTLAND, Maine — Parents in a section of Portland’s Libbytown neighborhood say school redistricting proposals would force their children to change schools twice in four years, an unfair burden to solve school crowding problems that should command a citywide solution.
“It’s hard to believe that out of the whole city, they just keep coming back here,” said Edwards Street resident Mike Brown. “One neighborhood can’t bear the burden [of changing schools] every time there’s a crowding problem.”
The chairman of the Portland Board of Education said that concerns about redistricting are premature. School board chairman Jaimey Caron said Portland Public Schools leaders are still considering multiple options for easing the overpopulation of the two-year-old Ocean Avenue Elementary School, some of which do not involve asking students to switch schools.
During the current school year, the school used music and art rooms as makeshift traditional classrooms to accommodate more students.
Portland isn’t the first Maine city to experience heartburn over potential school redistricting this year. In Lewiston, a proposal to redraw school catchment areas to better distribute poorer and non-English speaking students more evenly among the city’s facilities fueled heated debate and was ultimately thrown out by the school committee there.
Caron said the time for talk about citywide redistricting in Portland is still years away, with the school system focused first on an ambitious facility renovation plan that would involve significant upgrades or replacements of five city elementary schools.
Those sweeping renovations, which had an early price estimate of $46 million and would likely need to be funded by a voter-approved bond, could take several years to complete and would need to be finished before school officials make an informed decision about widespread redistricting, Caron said. He said the board will need to see how the school populations settle once some of the aging and downtrodden buildings are more attractive to parents.
“I think at that point, it would be a much different discussion than the one we’re having today,” Caron said. “When you look at the deplorable conditions of some of our buildings today, it really creates a barrier for some parents about which schools they’re willing to send their children to and which schools they’re not. … I think there’s a lot of discussion that will take place before a redistricting effort.”
Parents in the section of Libbytown that includes Craigie, Edwards and Frances streets say they want answers now. Two years ago, when the city opened the $14 million Ocean Avenue Elementary School, those parents begrudgingly agreed to move their children from the beloved — but outdated and now-closed — 1909 Nathan Clifford School to the new facility.
Now, Ocean Avenue Elementary School, which was built to accommodate 437 students, has a student population of 491. And with the enrollment expected to exceed 500 next fall, one way school officials are considering to ease crowding is to move kindergartners and first graders from the area bordered by Brighton Avenue, Bradley, Congress and Douglass streets — that same section of Libbytown — west from the Ocean Avenue school to Fred P. Hall School.
The same neighborhood shift is recommended for children of all grades as part of a draft long-term redistricting map submitted this month to the school board by the Biddeford-based planning consultants Oak Point Associates.
“[School officials told us two years ago], ‘We promise we won’t do this to you again’ — it was a verbal promise that wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on,” said Edwards Street resident John Gordon, who has a second and third grader attending the Ocean Avenue school.
The 57-year-old Hall School was closed for three weeks last fall because of a fire and remains in poor enough condition that it would be replaced outright under the school department’s $46 million facilities upgrade plan. Edwards Street resident Mike Podolsky, father of a third grader and kindergartner, said both the Hall School’s current state and the spectre of sending his children to a facility where heavy construction is going on outside the windows concern him.
“The choice for us two years ago was: Do we renovate Clifford or do we build a new school?” said Podolsky, one of five current or former Ocean Avenue Parent Teacher Organization board members from the neighborhood. “One of the things they told us was, well, ‘You’ll have this great new school [if you support the closure of Nathan Clifford].’”
Brown noted that children from their area have attended several different schools going back to the 1970s, when the neighborhood was considered part of the West School’s territory. He said he and his neighbors want the shuffling to stop and for their close-knit community of parents to have some school stability.
“Libbytown has been moved around a lot,” Brown said. “It’s not just this last move. They went from Longfellow [in the 1980s] to Clifford to Ocean Avenue. To maybe Hall.”