Portland Board of Public Education Chair Sarah Lentz presented the 2022 State of the Schools address to the City Council and the public on Monday, Dec. 19. The City Charter requires that the Board chair deliver an annual address to the Council on the state of the public education system in Portland.
Lentz, a new Board member who just became chair on Dec. 5, acknowledged in her address that the district is grappling with “hard and complex” issues: the payroll crisis, the Dec. 16 resignation of Superintendent Xavier Botana, and new Board leadership among them. Given those challenges, Lentz said, “many people asked if the “State of the Schools” would continue as planned and as the City Charter stipulates. My answer has always been unequivocally yes. I know that everyone in this room understands the importance of the state of our schools — that the state of our schools actually is the state of our students, the state of our staff, the state of our systems and, I would say, the state of our city. Tonight, I’ll be talking about the strengths and challenges I see in these areas and the critical role we all have to play in the state of our schools.”
She cited many awards and accolades – and some everyday heartwarming moments – that show the quality of PPS staff, the accomplishments of students and the strength of the district as a whole.
However, Lentz detailed the failure of the district’s payroll system, walking through how the crisis arose and outlining the steps to address it. “As I said at a recent Board meeting, we have failed our staff,” she said. “However, we have now made it our first order of business to resolve these issues, and we will continue to do all we can to repair the damage done and restore employee trust.”
The address also focused on the fact that not all PPS students have successful outcomes.
“There are persistent, significant inequities in educational outcomes, discipline, and attendance between our economically disadvantaged students (who are mostly students of color, English language learners, and students with disabilities) and our more advantaged students (who tend to be white),” Lentz said. “These inequities only increase when students hold more than one marginalized identity. And many of these students don't see themselves represented at school: In a district that is almost 50% students of color, less than 10% of our staff are people of color. These patterns are not new or unique to the Portland Public Schools. They have existed for decades in school systems across the state and nation.”
She said, “The Portland Public Schools made eliminating these inequities a priority, and rightly so.” Equity is the central goal of the Portland Promise, the district’s strategic plan. remains the district’s focus.
Lentz gave examples of progress the district has made in recent years. However, she added, “These are all very important steps toward achieving equity, but addressing systemic problems does not happen overnight. We recognize that there is much more work to do to support students who have long been marginalized in our community and society at large. While the Board has passed policy after policy aiming to dismantle systems and structures that perpetuate inequities in our schools, particularly for students and staff of color, we know that changing policy is not enough — we must shift culture, and that is much more difficult.”
She added that the schools and the Portland community are linked in helping students succeed. “Our students cannot learn and grow in the classroom if they are struggling at home,” Lentz said. “Teachers and staff cannot focus on their critical careers if they don't earn a living wage. Without city services, students and staff would lack transportation, nutrition, healthcare, internet access, books, and more. Let us remember that the city and its schools are inextricably linked, not opposing entities but rather close collaborators.”
Lentz concluded by asking the entire community to work together. “The disparities we seek to minimize through the strategy of the Portland Promise are tied deeply to what goes on in our communities. The roots of these inequities are complex and beyond what any school district can solve alone,” Lentz said. “Recently, I talked to a music teacher from one of our schools. They told me that they ask the young people in their class to come in ready to be an ensemble. Each young person is asked to bring their strengths into the classroom, to play their part the best that they can, and work with the others to form an ensemble — a collective whole that surpasses any single individual. I invite all of you to be part of our ensemble and invest time, courage, steadfast commitment, and resources so that we can accomplish the goal we all share: achieving equitable, successful outcomes for all students in the Portland Public Schools.”
The address was warmly received by Mayor Kate Snyder and several City Councilors, who promised to work with the school district.
Snyder praised Lentz for her “energy, integrity and transparency” in her new role as chair.
Councilor Andrew Zarro noted that he is on the Council’s Finance Committee and said he looked forward to working with the Board in that role. “We are your partners,” he said, “You are not alone in doing this work.”
Councilor Roberto Rodriguez agreed that “many of the issues that keep our students from thriving” stem from their lives outside of school and he said that work “does require community.”
“I’ll pledge our support as a body,” Rodriguez said. He also noted that the Portland Promise strategic plan was “never intended to be an eternal document.” He urged the Board to review it and “reaffirm that commitment, in whatever shape it takes.”