Members of the Portland Board of Public Education questioned the superintendent Tuesday night about a proposal to maintain staffing levels while ending free childcare programs after federal coronavirus relief funds run out at the end of the month.

The proposal presented by Superintendent Xavier Botana would reallocate savings and contingency money to continue covering about 120 staff positions added to reopen schools, but would end community partnerships that have allowed families to access childcare on remote learning days. The board heard the proposal at a workshop Tuesday and is expected to vote on it Dec. 22.

“I do this with a heavy heart,” Botana said. “I understand the importance of this programming for the students who have taken advantage of it during the past three months.”

The district has received about $14 million in coronavirus relief funds through the state and allocated about $10.5 million of that money so far. However, states face a Dec. 30 deadline to spend the money, and with uncertainty remaining over when and if the federal government will approve more aid or extend the deadline, school officials are preparing to operate without any additional funding.

School board members Tuesday mostly asked questions about the superintendent’s proposal though some said it seems like the best way forward in a tough situation. It would take an estimated $3 million to cover the staffing costs through the remainder of the school year, and about $1.8 million to continue the childcare programs. The district has hired additional staff to cover for those who are on leave, backfill the positions of teachers assigned to remote-only and added building subs and aides.

“As I debate the recommendation, a lot of what we’re trying to keep in place in terms of staffing … are things that are in place for us to maintain safety and health protocols,” board member Roberto Rodriguez said. “At the same time, by eliminating childcare services, we are potentially increasing the risk of COVID exposure as these families will have to resort to other means of supervision for their children when they’re not in school. We’re fortunate these facilities have safety measures in place but absent those structures, I’m worried about that.”

Rodriguez said the recommendation seems like “the best path forward,” but still leaves room for a lot of uncertainty. Board member Micky Bondo said she too is also leaning toward supporting the recommendation, but voiced concern for students’ social and emotional needs in the absence of the childcare programming, which has allowed students some time to socialize.

About 600 students are currently served by the childcare programming paid for through the coronavirus relief funds and run in conjunction with about a dozen nonprofits and the city’s recreation department. Botana said some of the community partners will continue to offer programming after the winter break, but families would likely have to pay for it.

The district is in conversations with the recreation department about continuing to offer before and after school programming and possibly offer scholarships. School staff whose children use the programs will be able to continue to do so as the district has secured about $120,000 through the Foundation for Public Schools and will “patch together” the remainder of the funds needed to offer childcare for staff, Botana said.

In other news Tuesday, the district has determined the Green New Deal for Portland, a referendum initiative passed in November that includes changes to the city’s building codes, will not apply to three school renovation projects.

The new building code provisions were expected to add up to $6 million to the renovations at Longfellow, Reiche and Presumpscot elementary schools. Aga Dixon, an attorney for the district, told the board Tuesday that the main reason the new code won’t apply is because the school projects had already been submitted to the city for substantive review prior to Dec. 6, the date the referendum took effect.

Dixon said she wasn’t aware of any potential challenges or concerns regarding the district’s interpretation. “This is really a very unique situation and the legal conclusions we’ve reached here won’t affect many other, if any, other projects because it really comes down to who was in the queue for site plan review when Question C was voted on,” she said.

The board is expected to vote Dec. 22 on a proposal for design and bidding on the three projects. A fourth school renovation project at Lyseth Elementary School, approved as part of a four-school bond in 2017, is about 75 percent complete and is expected to be completed prior to fall 2021.

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