The recent Maine Voices column by Emily Chaleff (Portland’s attitude toward school district has been thankless,” Dec. 8) contained an important truth while completely missing the mark on the relationship between the Portland City Council and the school board.

I’ll start with the important truth. Ms. Chaleff correctly identifies that the way we fund our schools is problematic. Not the problem she was writing about, but a larger, more important problem about how resources are doled out to school districts for education. By relying on property taxes to fund education, we reinforce the class structure that exists in this country and the gap between the rich and the poor.

It starts at the schoolhouse door and has been increasing because the gap has been increasing. The U.S. Supreme Court addressed an equal protection challenge to unequal funding in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez. In this 1973 case, the court decided that education was not a “fundamental interest” protected by the Constitution and that the school district’s financing system was not a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. Yet most researchers looking at economic inequality identify the quality of education as a prime contributing factor.

But what that has to do with the relationship between Portland City Hall and the school board is beyond me. Ms. Chaleff seems to argue that because she sees Portland Public Schools as “chronically underfunded” that the school district could not reasonably be expected to account for the $133 million it has under its supervision. This also seemed to be the assumption underlying the recent effort by the former school board chair, Emily Figdor, to dispense with city oversight of school finances through a recent referendum question – wisely, it seems, rejected by voters.

The problem Ms. Chaleff decries is the complacency of the community, city councilors and the media, who, according to Ms. Chaleff, criticize but have no suggestions for resources she says are needed to solve the problems the school department is experiencing. She accuses the city of “unforgivable thanklessness” toward the schools.

Ms. Chaleff was aware that the mayor; the chair of the city’s finance committee (Councilor Mark Dion), and members of both the city’s and the school department’s financial staff had reached out to meet and problem-solve with the school department over its financial control problems, which Figdor said in response was not “appropriate.”


If the school board won’t even meet with city administration, what more was the city to do? It doesn’t seem to me that the district’s problem is one of resources. Employees were fleeing the financial office like sailors abandoning a sinking ship, likely not wanting to take the blame for inadequate training on a new computer program that is, apparently, error prone.

Ms. Chaleff argues that the City Council was forcing the school district to come to it with its “hat in hand” instead of providing the resources the district needs to run its financial accounting department. Really? What resources were lacking? Figdor acted like a child yelling “You’re not the boss of me!”

Again, the Portland schools budget is around $133 million between state and city allocations. So money was not likely the problem.

In my opinion, the communication problem between the school department and the city was that Figdor didn’t want to admit there was a crisis in the school department’s accounting operation while she was simultaneously pushing a referendum to reduce fiscal oversight of the school department.

It was completely appropriate for Figdor to relinquish her leadership of the school board. Perhaps she should resign her seat as well. Good luck to her replacement at the helm, Sarah Lentz. Now, maybe, there could be a meeting with city officials to discuss, for example, why Portland taxpayers should pay for two separate financial departments.

Perhaps they could also find a way to collaborate on ordering supplies. Who knows what a meeting might produce?

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