Wednesday, February 19, 2020

My Monthly Column – February 2020


Equity Drives the Portland Public Schools
By Xavier Botana

I’m delighted the Portland Board of Public Education began Black History Month by voting to rename a school for Portland civil rights icon Gerald Talbot. That Feb. 4 vote means Riverton Elementary School will become the Gerald E. Talbot Community School, starting this fall.

This exceptional community leader’s list of accomplishments is long. He’s an educator, author, historian, civil and human rights activist, founding president of the Portland NAACP branch and Maine’s first African American legislator. He helped pass the Maine Human Rights Act and establish the Maine Human Rights Commission.

In short, Gerald Talbot has long been a champion of equity for all. It is fitting to name a school for him because – as Maine’s largest and most diverse school district – Equity is the foremost goal of the Portland Public Schools. And as we begin our 2020-2021 school budget process, we must continue to prioritize our investments to advance our Equity goal.

In 2017, our district set an ambitious agenda for improving education in Portland with the Portland Promise, our strategic plan. It has four clear, measurable goals– Achievement, Equity, Whole Student and People – to help prepare and empower our students for success in college and career.

Equity – reducing the achievement and opportunity gaps for our economically disadvantaged students and students of color – is the centerpiece of our four goals. However, we have a long way to go to reach Equity. When we compare the data of our non-economically disadvantaged students with those of our least advantaged students and students of color, we see great disparities.  

As a world-class progressive city, Portland cannot be satisfied with those outcomes. I know I’m not. To make progress on this front, our FY21 budget must continue to invest in programs, services and initiatives designed to reduce the persistent opportunity gaps between students.

The state’s school funding formula gives less state aid to districts with high valuation, like Portland, because we’re expected to contribute more locally. The state aid outlook is more positive for Portland than we initially projected, but our district still receives only about 15 percent of its revenue from the state. About 80 percent of our funding comes from local property taxes and 5 percent from federal or other sources.

Like any organization, we have rising costs for salaries and benefits every year.  With limited revenues and increasing costs, we must ask ourselves: How do we best manage our priorities to continue to have quality schools and also provide our least advantaged students with the support they need?

Portland taxpayers have consistently supported their schools, but simply adding to the budget to cover increased costs and make necessary investments yields a high burden on local taxpayers.  That is why we are looking for ways to make room in our budget for equity-focused investments, such as improved opportunities for English language learners and students with disabilities.

During the Board’s budget planning process this fall, Board members expressed willingness to consider revisiting existing programs and activities if needed to make room to advance our Equity agenda. Options could include moving from the current K-5 model to a primary/intermediate school model and evaluating programming such as co-curriculars and elementary school world languages, alongside our annual right-sizing staffing ratios across our schools.

The budget process is just beginning. Our annual public budget forum is on Feb. 26, at 6 p.m. at East End Community School, before I present my budget proposal to the Board on March 10. I look forward to hearing everyone’s ideas on how we can provide a quality education for all of our students.

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