Sunday, March 9, 2014
By ELBERT AULL
The question seems to pop up whenever the city's school district faces budget trouble: Should Portland Public Schools scale back its ambitious sex education program?
The controversy is back -- and more urgent this time as one of several cost-saving measures proposed to fill a $1.8 million budget shortfall for the current fiscal year.
Interim Superintendent Jeanne Whynot-Vickers has called for temporarily filling an open health teacher position at Lincoln Middle School with the woman who teaches sex education to fourth- and fifth-graders citywide. Doing so would leave the sex education position vacant and save $45,000 in salary, benefits and substitute-teacher costs for the rest of the fiscal year, Whynot-Vickers said.
State education officials said it is common practice in Maine to have classroom teachers provide sex education instruction, but opponents said the change would be a step back for Portland -- the only district in the state with staff positions dedicated to sex education.
''I think it's shortsighted. This program forms the basis for everything that the kids learn subsequently. We don't have the teacher training to take this over,'' said Amanda Rowe, the school district's head nurse.
Cutting back sex education would send the wrong message from a committee that made national headlines last year when it allowed students access to prescription contraceptives at a city-run health clinic at King Middle School, said School Committee member Sarah Thompson. The committee should not increase access to contraceptives and then reduce access to sex education, she said.
She is against the proposal and said it would require the district to cobble together a ''piecemeal'' sex education program and force it on unprepared teachers.
''I don't want someone talking to my fourth-grader (about sex) when they haven't had thorough training,'' she said.
The latest sex education debate follows Gov. John Baldacci's decision in November to cut state spending by $80 million to balance the budget for the current fiscal year. His executive order cut $27 million in state aid to school districts statewide -- including $1.8 million in Portland, or about 12 percent of its $14.9 million allotment this year and about 2 percent of its overall $89.5 million budget.
Whynot-Vickers has already planned about $1.6 million in administrative cuts. Those reductions -- peeling back supply and travel budgets, for example -- do not directly affect student programs and hence do not require School Committee approval.
Whynot-Vickers unveiled a list of proposals for the remaining $200,000 in cuts in December.
Some, such as a pair of furlough days for teachers, need union backing and are currently being negotiated. Others, such as the change to the sex education program, need the committee's approval.
The School Committee scheduled a public hearing on all the proposed cuts except the sex education issue for 7 p.m. Jan. 14 at Casco Bay High School. It is scheduled to vote on the sex education proposal Jan. 21.
The state Department of Education requires sex education instruction in schools, but does not regulate who teaches the classes.
In Portland, a team of three ''Family Living'' teachers serve the entire school district -- one each at the high, middle and elementary school levels.
The six-week elementary school program -- delivered to fourth- and fifth-graders with parental consent -- is an introduction to sex education, Rowe said. Students learn about the body, its reproductive system and what to expect during puberty, she said.
The classes also cover sexual abuse, harassment and sexually transmitted diseases.
In all, the program provides students with about nine hours of instruction. Whynot-Vickers estimated that students would lose about an hour and a half of that time this spring if the committee approves the sex education proposal.
She said classes would likely skip ''the more highly specialized sexuality pieces'' that regular teachers ''may not feel comfortable or knowledgeable about.''
The tough lessons include information on sexual abuse and harassment, and would instead be led by either social workers or the middle and high school sex education teachers -- who would shuffle their schedules to accommodate the extra workload, according to a draft overview of the district's proposal.
Whynot-Vickers said the proposed changes to the program are not ideal, but necessary in difficult fiscal times when School Committee members are going to have to make tough budget decisions. She stressed that her proposal calls for a temporary change and that she plans to recommend that the position be funded for the next fiscal year.
''We're not losing the whole program. We're certainly not losing the majority of the content,'' Whynot-Vickers said.
Nicholas McGee, the Portland resident who led a failed effort to recall committee members after the contraception vote, said that if the school system does make changes to its sex education program, it would be wise to set up meetings with parent-teacher organizations beforehand to discuss who will be teaching what, when and to whom.
''So there's a comfort level with the parents, teachers and health professionals,'' McGee said. Parents were shut out of the contraception decision, and that should not be the case this time, he said.
This is the eighth consecutive year that the district's sex education program has been threatened with budget cuts. None of the past efforts to pare down the program have succeeded.
School officials established a task force to study the program in 2006. Rowe, a member, said the committee asked elementary teachers whether they would be comfortable teaching sex education.
She said the answer was ''no'' then, and she doubts many teachers will follow through if asked to lead discussions on puberty and the body's reproductive systems this semester.
''If they're not trained and they're not comfortable, they're not going to do it,'' Rowe said.
Whynot-Vickers said the latest sex education debate will be the first of several like it in the coming months. While the cut to this year's funding must be addressed now, she expects to put more cuts on the table as she prepares her budget for the 2009-10 fiscal year.
''We're having to make some compromises,'' she said.
Staff Writer Elbert Aull can be contacted at 791-6325 or at: