March 19, 2013

Speech outlines challenges ahead for Portland schools

The city must find ways to prepare for the future and compete against charter schools, Jaimey Caron says.

By Randy Billings
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — Portland's public schools must do everything they can to stay competitive against charter schools, including investing in buildings, improving students' achievement and changing their culture.

That was the message of Jaimey Caron, chairman of the Portland Board of Public Education, in his State of the Schools speech on Monday.

Caron recalled the district's accomplishments over the last year and outlined the challenges ahead -- mainly increasing students' achievement in uncertain financial times.

Caron said the school board's biggest accomplishment last year was hiring Emmanuel Caulk as superintendent.

"Looking ahead, it seems hiring a superintendent was the easy part," Caron said.

"Creating a culture of teamwork and accountability in the face of significant changes is hard work."

Caron alluded to the ongoing challenges of ensuring equity across the district.

"Too often, it feels like a zero sum game pitting teachers and schools against one another for dwindling resources," he said. "The loudest or most organized voices often prevail at the expense of more comprehensive solutions."

Caron said the district will soon form a Budget and Revenue Advisory Task Force to look for creative ways to bring more revenue to the district and reduce the volatility of the budget.

The board has hired a consultant to do a comprehensive review of the schools' organizational structure, including job descriptions and salary comparisons. Caron said that report, which is due in June, will provide for a more accountable, student-focused district.

The board is also reviewing its own policies for comprehensive planning, governance and public engagement.

The aim is to ensure "continuous self-evaluation" and clarify the decision-making process, Caron said.

Three major challenges lie ahead: competition from charter schools, lingering economic uncertainty and a changing public education system.

Caron said a charter school planned in Portland has forced the district to rethink how it can stay competitive.

But it lacks a coordinated system of assessments to guide instruction.

The district recently hired a data specialist to develop "forward-looking" assessments so it won't rely on standardized tests, which Caron described as a lagging indicator of students' performance.

The superintendent wants to create a score card, which could be used along with the district's school-based report cards, to better communicate how the district is performing as a whole.

"There is a reason the windshield is larger than the rear-view mirror," he said, "and if we are to raise student achievement, we need assessments that are forward-looking."

Caron noted the financial challenges facing the district.

Last week, Caulk proposed a $98.9 million budget for the 2013-14 school year, a 5 percent increase over the $94.2 million budget approved by voters last year.

Caulk outlined $3.4 million in specific cuts, and said he is seeking another $1.5 million in unspecified cuts to bring the budget to a target amount of $97.4 million, which would require a tax rate increase of 3.7 percent.

The budget assumes $8 million in additional costs, including $1.5 million stemming from a LePage administration proposal to shift teacher retirement costs from the state to school districts.

Caron noted the need to improve Portland's school facilities.

He said Hall Elementary School and West School were nearly lost because of neglect.

The aging Hall school caught fire earlier this school year, and special-education students were removed from the West School because boiler broke and the roof was in disrepair.

Before the fire disrupted classes at the Hall school, he said, students wearing raincoats would sit in classes next to trash barrels that collected water from a leaky roof.

Caron said the district will put a bond proposal before voters this fall to fund repairs.

"No matter what you think about our budget or your position on the various changes being considered across the district, it's just not right that there are children in Portland learning in such environments," he said.


Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

Twitter: @randybillings


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