Portland school officials eye plan to help sell redistricting - Forming new elementary districts will be more palatable if schools are fixed first, officials say

Portland Press Herald (ME) - Wednesday, September 12, 2012
Author: Tom Bell tbell@mainetoday.com, Staff Writer

PORTLAND — School officials plan to form new districts for the city's elementary schools, but they want to proceed on parallel tracks – fixing overcrowding at Ocean Avenue Elementary School while developing a citywide plan to be implemented when a proposed $40 million upgrade of the elementary schools is completed. 

Redrawing school district boundary lines is a politically volatile issue. It would be less contentious if the school board could at the same time eliminate the inequality that exists because some schools are in much better physical condition and have better amenities than others, said members of the Portland Board of Public Education at a meeting Tuesday. 

"It's an equity issue. It's not just about capacity," said board member Jaimey Caron. 

He noted that the city plans to ask voters in November 2013 to approve a plan to borrow more than $40 million to replace the Hall Elementary School and rebuild four other elementary schools. 

Before school officials can ask voters to approve the funding, they will need to have a plan to fix district boundary lines and address other issues, such as whether schools will offer specialized programs that are open to students from other districts or be more neighborhood-based, Caron said. 

He said the school board should delegate much of the work to a task force because the issue can be so difficult for an elected body. The school board would have the final say. 

Most of the other school board members agreed with Caron. Portland schools' chief operating officer, Peter Eglinton, recommended the same approach. 

The $40 million investment in the schools would make it easier for parents to see that the "experience their child will have won't vary by location," he told the board. 

Portland hasn't redistricted since 1992. Potential overcrowding at the $14.2 million Ocean Avenue Elementary School, which opened in 2011, was the "tipping point" that caused school officials to decide to redistrict, Eglinton said. 

At the beginning the summer, with projections showing that enrollment could exceed capacity by 30 to 50 students, school officials worried that they would have to relocate the school's art and music programs to free up classroom space. 

Although officials didn't take that step because enrollments were lower than the worst-case scenario, the incident highlighted the district's lack of flexibility in handling enrollment issues, Eglinton said. 

The school district, which has had declining enrollment for many years, is now seeing enrollments increase in the elementary schools. Portland, Maine's largest school district, has about 7,000 students. Projections call for enrollment to increase to 7,200 by 2019. 

Currently, the Longfellow, Lyseth and Reiche schools are over their capacity. 

School board members agreed Tuesday that the district should hire a consultant to help the process, and that it's critical to engage the community. 

"We have the opportunity to reframe what education is all about," said board member Laurie Davis.