Portland Public Schools is looking to delay the opening of two new middle schools for a year, to focus on other pressing issues.
Interim Superintendent Bob McKean is recommending that Harriett Tubman and Roseway Heights middle schools not open until Fall 2018.
“We do not believe that we have the capacity to open those schools right now and we don’t believe, even if we had the capacity, that we are ready to do it from a programmatic standpoint, to offer the kind of quality that we need to have,” McKean said at a Friday briefing with reporters.
McKean said the “capacity” limitations come on several fronts. There are 55 job vacancies in key support areas including facilities, maintenance, information technology and planning. Filling those positions isn’t an easy task, given that there are a handful of vacant positions in human resources, as well.
The transition back to middle schools from K-8s has been controversial, but district leaders have defended it as necessary strategy to address unbalanced enrollment. Some schools are overcrowded. Others have too few students in certain grades, making those classes difficult to serve efficiently, based on Portland’s “money follows the student” funding model. McKean has offered a few short-term solutions, aimed at addressing severely under-enrolled classes, like grades 6-8 at King K-8.
But McKean’s main focus won’t be on balancing enrollments. He said given the many vacant administrative positions and limited time, he said he will focus on critical school health issues like the presence of lead.
Communities across the Northwest were shocked recently to discover dangerously high lead levels in their water. How did this happen, and what’s being done to fix the problem?
Yusuf Awwad, who is still doing two jobs, as interim Chief Operating Officer and Chief Finance Officer, joined McKean at the media briefing Friday.
Awwad said that he advised McKean that the extent of the health and safety problems means they deserve priority.
“That’s why I went to Bob [McKean] and said ‘Listen, we’ve got a lot of work.’ The health and safety, it’s a surprise, out of nowhere a few months ago,” Awwad said. “I don’t think anyone anticipated the amount of work that would go with that. Having discovered that, we’re going to have to change our priority there.”
At the same time, Awwad and McKean pointed out that the district is going through three high school transitions next summer: the Grant High School building closing with students moving to the Marshall campus; the new Franklin High School building opening with students moving back from Marshall; and the completion of the new Roosevelt High. Those three changes alone will use up lots of district resources, in terms of money, staff and focus, Awwad and McKean said.
McKean argued piling the middle school transitions on top of that was risky.
“It would be irresponsible for me to advise the board to move ahead with something that I know ultimately would have the potential of destroying whatever community trust is left,” McKean said. “Whereas, if in fact we’re transparent and honest right up front, with what we think we can do, and then we move forward to do it well, that will go to build community trust.”
The issue of “community trust” is key to McKean and Portland Public Schools leaders, who plan to put a bond measure before Portland voters next May. The bond is seen as the long-term fix for two big issues: the district’s environmental health problems, and the space constraints behind building and boundary modifications, like the middle school transitions. Portland Public Schools had initially planned a bond for the November 2016 ballot, but scuttled it, out of fear it could fail - although many students and parents disagreed with that delay.
McKean said he hasn’t given much consideration to the schools in Southeast Portland. Since big changes weren’t intended to take place until 2018 in any case, McKean said it was beyond his horizon, as “temporary guy.”
Many of the changes in that part of the district hinge on the future of Kellogg — a middle school that’s been closed for a decade and will cost millions in facility upgrades to re-open. Facility plans are undecided on the question of whether to refurbish or rebuild Kellogg. Figuring out Southeast took a backseat for interim Chief Operations Officer, Awwad, as well, behind changes due in 2017 and the health and safety work.
“Quite honestly, I haven’t even gone there,” said Awwad, regarding Kellogg.
McKean doesn’t know how parents and students will receive the delays. Will it build trust, because they agree with McKean that moving ahead would be “irresponsible?” Or will the delay reinforce criticism, that the district struggles with complex problems?
“I’m hopeful that the answer to your question is that it will build community trust, because they will see that we’re trying to do the right thing,” McKean said.
At the same time, Portland Public Schools is unsure of the total price tag of the environmental work that it is focusing on. Administrators are preparing for costs to be extremely high.
A statement from McKean suggests even if Ballot Measure 97 passes, and it boosts state K-12 spending by $2 billion per biennium, Portland Public Schools’ share would still fall short of what’s needed to address environmental health problems in the upcoming year. Awwad said the district could do $50 million to tackle lead paint and drinking water problems. But that’s based purely on how much facility work the district can actually do in a given year.
Awwad said the district is working with contractor CH2M Hill to figure out the extent of the lead-in-drinking-water problems, but he anticipates a total in the hundreds of millions of dollars and beyond the ability of one bond measure to cover.
McKean intends to discuss the proposed delay at a work session with school board members on Monday.
Editor’s Note: The documents provided by PPS were rough drafts, and may change before they appear before the school board.