The Portland Board of Public Education agreed in principle Tuesday night that island schools and non-school facilities such as those for food service and administration should be included in a major facilities assessment intended to find ways for the financially struggling district to save money.

Several members of the public, including a city councilor, encouraged the board to gather as much information as possible, even as several Presumpscot Elementary School parents began lobbying to save their school, which they fear could be targeted if the board eventually considers closing a school.

“I think we have a really unique school,” Crystal Gamet said at a public hearing, the first of several on the facilities assessment project.

Gamet, a mother of three, said she regularly volunteers at the school, and has a second-grader and fourth-grader there. “Right now we have incredible parent engagement, and that would absolutely be lost if we had to suddenly go to another part of town to go to school,” she said.

The board heard from 10 people at the public hearing, the first of several related to the facilities review, which was first conceived after this spring’s bruising school budget season.

Increasing school budgets have required regular tax hikes, with the local impact compounded as Portland’s higher property valuation triggered a decrease in state education funding. That local tax burden is expected to increase in future years as Portland’s property valuation continues to rise.

Inevitably during these tense debates, the idea of saving costs by consolidation is raised – but there are not good data to support an informed conversation and not enough time to do the research in time to affect the current budget cycle. That is what led school board leaders to pledge to do that research after the last budget cycle.

In May, the board passed a resolution requiring the superintendent to work with a hired consultant to develop a five-year projection, including data on demographics, facilities, enrollment, programming and transportation costs.

The proposed amount of the contract with Davis Demographics is $190,800. The report from the research firm would be due to the district by the end of December.

At the same time, a special commission is being formed that will review the data, and will provide a report in late December or early January. In January, Superintendent Xavier Botana will submit the group’s recommendations to the board.

“I wanted to commend you for undertaking this process. I think it’s a difficult undertaking,” said District 5 City Council member Kim Cook, who has two children at Longfellow Elementary and one child at Lincoln Middle School.

In addition to agreeing to consider the island schools in the analysis, the board on Tuesday also discussed expanding the commission to up to 16 members, including school board and City Council representatives, teachers, students, principals and community members.

The facilities analysis is intended to give district and city officials more options financially when the next school budget cycle starts in the spring.

Botana and several board members emphasized Tuesday that there is no foregone conclusion about whether school redistricting or school closure may be financially advantageous.

Board member Marnie Morrione, noting that some people are alarmed at the idea of closing schools or redistricting, said she didn’t want to use the term “rightsizing” in the discussion and wanted it considered an assessment.

Botana disagreed, saying the point was cost savings.

“If this is not about finding savings, we shouldn’t be spending $200,000 and a ton of staff time,” he said. “If it’s not about that, then we should just not do it.”

Chairwoman Anna Trevorrow agreed that finding ways to save money was the driving force behind the study.

“The reason we are doing this work is so we know where cost savings can be achieved if necessary,” she said. “I know ‘rightsizing’ (is) sort of a hot-button word and there are sensitivities, but I don’t think there should be any illusions about this work. These are not the best-case scenarios; they are realities of what we are faced with financially.”

On Sept. 25, the board is expected to vote on a consulting contract for the comprehensive review and appoint the commission to oversee the work.

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: noelinmaine

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