The Portland school district is facing significant financial and academic challenges as it prepares to lay out its budget for the upcoming school year.

Portland Superintendent Ryan Scallon

Superintendent Ryan Scallon is scheduled to present the district’s budget to the school board on Tuesday.

But a combination of struggling students and limited funding may make it difficult for the state’s largest school district to provide the resources that students and staff need to reach their potential.

An outside review of Portland schools found that it is consistently not providing grade level content, that students are not invested and engaged, that student success and experience varies based on the school attended, race and economic status, and that Portland students are scoring below the state average on statewide exams.

District leaders said those findings, which were collected in September, are already outdated. And teachers said they feel the district is moving in a positive direction. The consultancy that performed the review said the district’s results were typical of the schools they work with.

Like districts across the country, Portland is heading into its first year without millions of dollars of federal COVID-19 relief money and is contending with significant inflation.


It already has said that just maintaining the district’s current programming would require an 11% tax increase for Portland homeowners. The Portland City Council, facing its own possible 9.5% tax hike, has asked the school district to keep the tax increase low.

Portland’s property tax rate is the average of the municipal and school tax rates. The city and the school board set their budgets and resulting tax rates, both of which must be approved by the City Council. The school budget is also sent to voters for approval.

City property owners saw a 5.9% tax increase last year, with a 6.1% increase from the city and 5.7% from schools. The school district’s budget this year is $143.8 million.


The district received the results of its outside review in November. It’s meant to help the district work through its budget priorities for next year and the pending five-year strategic plan.

The consultant, Attuned Education Partners, found that the district is providing grade level material in less than 50% of classrooms, students seemed cognitively engaged in less than 25% of classes, student experiences vary greatly depending on what school they attend, and students from historically disadvantaged backgrounds perform worse than their white counterparts. The review also found that staff seem to feel under-supported, are overworked, feel they lack agency and don’t like working for the district.


In some metrics, it’s clear that Portland Public Schools are struggling to a greater extent than other school districts. Portland student graduation rates and scores on statewide examinations are lower than the state average. But for most matters, including the achievement gap between students of different races and economic backgrounds, there isn’t a clear benchmark to measure the district against.

Scallon and School Board Chair Sarah Lentz said in a joint interview on Thursday that they never expected a completely positive report and that understanding the district’s challenges will help them direct resources and pick priorities. They also said that the district already has made many important strides since the consultancy analyzed the district in September and that its initiative to hire a consultant to analyze and observe the district and publish the results of its findings shows its commitment to transparency.

Dana Lehman, who analyzed Portland schools for Attuned Education Partners, said the district’s performance and results were pretty standard.

“We have a really high bar,” Lehman said. “I think that’s why districts want to work with us. The biggest value we provide is helping them see high leverage places where they can grow.”

She said Attuned’s goal is to hold a mirror up to the school district and show it where it is compared to its vision.

To generate the report, Attuned visited 77 classrooms at 12 of the district’s 16 schools, spending 10-15 minutes in each classroom. The consultancy also looked at historical and state data, held interviews and focus groups, and sent out and studied surveys. It summarized its top-line findings into dozens of metrics, including Advanced Placement participation, performance consistency across race, economic status and school, and success on standardized tests.


Of its 54 findings, 36 were negative, 15 were positive and three were neither negative nor positive. The positive metrics largely have to do with equity, belonging and the quality of the district’s staff. The consultancy also found that the district is committed and taking steps toward providing students access to grade level material.

Among the negative findings were significant achievement gaps between white and Black students, lack of grade level material for students, low staff morale, frustration with unreliable transportation and slow rollout of the new curriculums.

Lentz and Scallon said that the report, which is based in part on September classroom observations and surveys from last year, is outdated in some regards – including staff morale and rollout of grade level curricula.

“We have seen progress in our operations, within the implementation of curriculum and opportunities students have,” said Scallon, who became superintendent in July. “This is not a one-day activity.”


Portland educators told the Press Herald this week that they feel like the district is improving under Scallon and that they are confident he will put students and teachers first.


“I’m feeling optimistic about Dr. Scallon and his priorities for the budget,” said Jean Rank, an art teacher of five years at Rowe Elementary School.

“I think Dr. Scallon has really shown an interest in hearing from teachers and families,” she said. “He seems to be truly invested in making improvements to the schools that will matter to the kids and people working them.”

Rank said she’s looking forward to hearing the budget specifics.

Like Rank, Portland High School history teacher Ericka Lee-Winship feels good about Scallon’s leadership and is hopeful about the district’s future. But she’s also concerned about how budget cuts might impact teachers and students.

“In an ideal world there would be no cuts,” she said. “But when you’re faced with significant budget deficits something has to change,” she said.

Lee-Winship is worried that if educator positions are cut, remaining teachers will be left with more work to do in the same amount of time – for the same amount of money.

Already, she said, it’s hard to find enough hours in the day to do all the work that’s expected of her.

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