By Emily Figdor, District 2 School Board Member
I am so honored to serve on the Portland School Board, representing the West End, Parkside, St. John Valley, and part of Oakdale.
It’s my second year, and I truly love the work—the people, students, budgeting, and policymaking—because the values are my own, especially values of high expectations (“We are all expected and enabled to meet high standards”), community (“We are better together, and we support one another”), and courage (“We commit to always confront inequity”).
In recent weeks, Superintendent Xavier Botana outlined a potential reconfiguration of our elementary schools as a strategy to reduce costs, as the state shifts education funds to poorer districts. I personally oppose the reconfiguration. Here’s why:
The proposal would reconfigure our eight mainland grade K-5 elementary schools to four grade K-2 schools and four grade 3-5 schools.
There are two scenarios, with different pairings of the schools. In one, Reiche is paired with East End School; and in the other, Reiche is with Rowe. In both cases, Reiche would be the grade 3-5 school.
The first scenario is estimated to save up to $780,00, and the second scenario $660,000. The savings come from reducing the number of classrooms we need, meaning we’d eliminate teacher positions.
The superintendent estimates that about 30% of the estimated savings wouldn’t be realized, because the implementation wouldn’t happen perfectly—e.g., there might be more 3rd graders than anticipated at a school. That means the actual savings would be closer to $520,000 at most, or 0.44% of our projected budget for the 2020-2021 school year.
Big picture, we live in a booming city, with development happening all around us.
The economy is strong, though the gap between the rich and everyone else continues to grow. The state budget is bigger than it’s ever been. Governor Janet Mills values public education, and Portland is seeing large increases in revenue sharing from the state (about a $1 million increase next fiscal year).
When you look at spending on K-12 public education in Portland compared to per-student spending in surrounding districts, we spend the least per student after Westbrook. And that’s despite having a far more complex student population. For instance, nearly 25% of our students are English Language Learners, and more than half qualify for free or reduced lunch.
Ultimately, it’s a question of priorities for our city.
We have the resources, but it’s about how the city chooses to spend those resources. My firm belief is that our city should prioritize our schools.
I don’t believe that budget considerations should dictate something so fundamental as how we organize education for our youngest students. A decision of this magnitude should occur outside the yearly pressures of budgeting and be based on well-researched best practices for students.
In addition, the proposal is at odds with the “whole child” and “people” goals in the Portland Promise, our strategic plan.
First, relationships matter and are core to enabling kids to succeed, which is why our schools focus on social and emotional learning. Aristotle said, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”
There’s now extensive scientific research showing that social and emotional learning is critical to students’ success, including academic achievement. It can take time for kids to develop trust and feel safe at school. We’d upend those relationships and force kids to start over with grade K-2 and 3-5 schools.
Second, we love our neighborhood schools. And the future for Portland is in strengthening neighborhoods and increasing the walkability of our communities, not putting five-year-olds on buses when there’s a school next door.
The proposal also would create more transitions for students, which we know leads to academic loss, and cause upheaval to staff and school cultures, among other problems and complexities.
It’s true that reconfiguring the elementary schools would make some of the schools modestly more similar demographically. Right now, we have four high-poverty schools, including Reiche. Under both reconfiguration scenarios, two schools would remain high-poverty.
Lastly, the reconfiguration would open up 11 classrooms for pre-K. Right now, we don’t have enough space. But, under both scenarios, the pre-K classrooms would be in the grade 3-5 schools—not a solution at all.
Emily Figdor serves as the District 2 school board member and is the mom of a 2nd grader at Reiche Community School and a 6th grader at King Middle School. You can reach her at email@example.com.