March 4, 2010

Hit by September surprise


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Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: Erin Partridge reads a story to the students in her second grade class Tuesday, September 15, 2009, at Nathan Clifford School in Portland. The elementary school expected 260 students this year and now has more than 300. Partridge has 28 students in her class.

Jack Milton

Staff Writer

PORTLAND — The city's public schools expect to have about 7,000 students this fall, a 2 percent increase that counters a 39-year decline and is prompting startled school officials to squeeze the budget to hire more teachers.

An estimated 6,990 students have enrolled or are expected to enroll in Portland schools in the coming weeks, officials said Tuesday. That's 147 more than the 6,843 they projected when they built a $91.3 million budget last spring. The number of new students could grow even more before Oct. 1, when districts across Maine take a yearly count.

The new students include refugees and other immigrants who moved here this summer and continue to arrive, and students whose parents decided to take them out of private or parochial schools for economic reasons.

''The numbers are changing literally by day,'' said Superintendent Jim Morse. ''There are still hot spots all over the district.''

At this point, he said, it's a relatively small increase in students.

''But they all seem to be planted in the wrong places, where schools aren't able to absorb them,'' he said. ''And this budget is spoken for in every single line, so if you bring in another teacher, there's something you have to cut.''

One of those places is Clifford Elementary School, where two first-grade classes have 23 and 26 students and two second-grade classes have 26 and 28 students.

The district's guidelines call for 16 to 20 students per first- or second-grade class, especially because Portland has many students who are disadvantaged, have special needs or are learning to speak English.

Tonight, Morse is expected to present a plan to the School Committee to hire an additional teacher at Clifford and create a combined first- and second-grade class of 20 students. That would leave two first-grade classes with 18 and 19 students and two second-grade classes with 22 and 23 students.

Morse said he may use building maintenance funds to pay for the estimated $50,000 position, which wouldn't need the committee's approval. But as a new superintendent -- he started July 1 -- Morse said he wants committee members to know exactly what he's doing and why, especially in light of past budget problems, and hopes to win their support.

That could be difficult, given the long discussion that preceded the committee's 6-3 vote last month on the superintendent's plan to hire a teacher and three teacher's aides to address large class sizes at the Hall, Longfellow and Presumpscot elementary schools. Morse adjusted the budget to pay for those positions.

Portland's enrollment is increasing at a difficult time, during a recession, when districts across Maine are expecting significant reductions in state aid, possibly during this budget year.

''Whatever we do will limit our flexibility in dealing with a potential curtailment in state aid, regardless of our enrollment,'' said Peter Eglinton, School Committee chairman.

Eglinton noted that one of his children is a second-grader at Clifford. Her kindergarten class had 27 students, he said. Her first-grade class had 16 students.

''Part of the challenge is having a consistent class-size policy across the district,'' he said. ''I can sympathize with the challenges that a teacher faces in having a larger class. This is such a tight budget, we may want to do more but may not be able to.''

Morse said he plans to address staffing needs as they arise, and will cope with a state aid reduction if or when it happens.

The recent uptick in Portland's enrollment reverses a slide that began in 1970, when the district peaked at 14,188 students.

The increase in refugees can be attributed to the fact that Catholic Charities Maine, the state's only refugee resettlement agency, resumed accepting refugees this year after a seven-year hiatus in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Among other new students, the economy was the driving force.

''Tuition was a factor in some cases,'' said Beverly Coursey, the new principal at Clifford, which has enrolled 40 unanticipated students this fall.

Coursey said some parents couldn't afford to pay thousands of dollars to send their children to private or parochial school, then pay for books and extracurricular activities. Coursey noted that the district reduced the school's staff by one teacher and two teacher's aides this year.

Looking ahead, Morse said the district's salary account must be flexible enough to address slight enrollment increases.

''Even without an increase in enrollment, population shifts often call for hiring teachers,'' Morse said. ''You have to set aside that kind of funding.''

Tonight's School Committee meeting is scheduled for 7 in Room 250 at Portland Arts and Technology High School.

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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