Portland Public Schools Superintendent William Heath has graciously agreed to answer another round of reader submitted questions. Heath is currently in his third year leading the district.
Question: Has there been any consideration to installing lights on the high school soccer field like many other schools have, allowing games to be able to be played slightly later? Also, the soccer club is very active in its fundraising and Coach Roof has found grants that would only require a matching amount by the school for the lights. In addition, staff from Tri-county have offered to install poles for the lights for free. Soccer is a great sport and deserves this - the soccer club has been working so hard for so many years towards this goal.
William Heath: We have had several discussions on the need and possibility of installing lights at the Varsity Soccer Field. It is on the list of future improvements, but the current need, has not made it a top priority at this time. Soccer is a great sport but we are not consistently fielding sub-varsity level teams. The current schedule does not dictate the need for lights because we do not have Freshman or Junior Varsity teams playing. Portland has a recreation and travel soccer program that utilize our facilities as well. Currently, the travel soccer program utilizes the Varsity Soccer Field for their games. This is not an ideal situation as it creates extra wear on the field and scheduling issues. The access to full size soccer fields in Portland is limited. It would be equally beneficial for soccer in Portland if the district had another soccer field to allow for more field access for our athletes. Currently, the travel soccer program utilizes a portion of the old football field at the middle school for practices but not games. If you spend any time at this field you will notice that the Junior Raiders Football field is nice and green during the summer and the soccer field is not. Originally, the irrigation system for this field was installed by the district. A decision was made several years ago that since the district only occasionally utilizes these fields it would not to continue to pay the cost of water for irrigation. The Junior Raiders program has paid the cost of water since then and that is why a portion of the field is green throughout the summer. The district is currently investigating if the old irrigation system under the soccer field, that has not been used for years, is still usable and what the cost would be to get it working and irrigate the soccer portion of the field.
Question: Are there any plans to improve accessibility of the bleachers in the high school and middle school gyms? We who attend events at these school gyms with a disabled person find it very difficult to go any higher than the first row. Other school gyms I have attended have handrails, even the old outdated gym at St. Pats is accommodating with hand rails in the bleachers. Disabled people enjoy watching our young in their contests.
William Heath: The High School gym will have new bleachers installed during the summer of 2020 as part of the recently passed bond extension. It is a requirement that all of our bond work meets ADA compliance. There is no current plan to update the Middle School bleachers with handrails. I will investigate to see if it is even a possibility without replacing the entire bleachers.
Question: With another Michigan winter nearly upon us, can to tell us what drives your decision to declare a snow day?
William Heath: Winter is definitely early this year. Our snow day on Monday was one of the earliest that I can remember. The process of cancelling school usually starts early in the morning, around 4:30 a.m., unless we are lucky enough to make the decision in the evening. We will always try to make the decision as early as possible and if at all possible the evening before. There are numerous factors that determine if we cancel school. There is no set temperature or snowfall amount for the school to cancel. When we make these decisions we factor in all relevant information and make a decision on if we can safely run a school day as well as transport students to and from school. People have a tendency to look solely at transportation concerns when closing school but we also need to look at how the weather influences our ability to effectively execute safety procedures in the case of an emergency.
On inclement weather days Mr. Bond (District Operations Director Gary Bond) and I start our mornings by driving a large portion of the district. I monitor the current and forecasted weather to determine if the road conditions will get worse. I am also in contact with all of our surrounding school district superintendents and getting updates from the Road Commission if needed. Mr. Bond is in contact with our drivers as they are usually traveling to work or already at work by the time we make the final decision. Our decision needs to be made before 5:45 a.m., as that is when our first bus leaves the garage to pick up students.
Often, on questionable days, I will get numerous phone calls or emails questioning the call or no call. While most of those complaints/concerns happen on days that we don’t call off school, I do actually get complaints on days when we do call off school. Most of the time the concern involves the ability of teenagers to safely drive themselves to school. The district’s decision is based on the ability for the district to safely transport students. We provide transportation to all of our in-district students and the majority of our families take advantage of this service. While we are concerned about our student drivers, we cannot close school based on their abilities when we provide transportation. We encourage parents of students who drive to develop alternate plans on days that the driving conditions exceed that of their abilities. Understanding your child’s abilities as a driver is important. If for some reason we have school and your families alternate plans fall through it is always up to the parents to determine if a student attends school.
Question: What is the district doing to attract more bus drivers and substitute teachers?
William Heath: This is definitely a concern for the district. Just about every day we have a substitute teacher position that is not filled in the district and on several days we have multiple per building. When this happens, our support staff, teachers, and administrative team adjust their schedules and/or cancel training to fill these positions. This makes it very difficult for us to ensure staff are fully trained and students have a high quality substitute when staff are absent.
To answer the question on what we are doing to help this situation we need to understand the actual problem. We have a lot of high quality substitutes in the district but we need more. The current unemployment rate in our State and County is low. This is a manpower issue as there is not enough qualified people within our community who are in need of work to fill these positions. We continue to recruit for staff, but our efforts have only made a minimal impact. Often I am told that this is a pay issue. I agree that at some point there is a dollar amount that would increase our substitute and driver pool. But, what is that amount? Many districts have increased their rates as much as 40% which resulted in little to no change in fill rates. Increasing rates only works if you have the ability to steal employees from other districts. Our area is really only sharing the same pool of people. It is important that the district offers a competitive wage in comparison to other schools in our area. We continue to make progress with achieving this with our drivers and we will do the same for our substitutes. The problem we need to solve is how do we increase the pool of candidates.
What we have found is that providing an inviting work environment where our drivers and substitutes can feel supported and successful is the most important factor in recruiting and keeping employees. The district continues to work on the culture of our buildings and how we handle our guest employees. I am currently working on further plans to help reward and encourage our drivers and substitutes.
Requirements for becoming a substitute teacher can be found at https://signup.willsub.com/index.asp?fuseaction=start.show_requirements.
Question: The bond extension is funding secure vestibules, but can you tell me what other initiatives the district has in regards to student safety?
William Heath: Our first priority with the bond extension is to ensure that our buildings are secure and that we have a system in place to notify key personnel during an emergency. The bond will take care of both of these this summer. Included in this will be updates in our entryways, door access controls, doors, door hardware, cameras, public address system, and emergency notification and alert system. Beyond the structural and system work that will be completed over the summer there is also the safety policy and practice improvements. All of the structural components will not work unless our staff is educated on the why and how of these systems. For the past three years we have contracted with Critical Incident Management to conduct training and safety procedure review for the district. We will continue to use this company to provide the most up-to-date and best practices in school safety training and procedures.
Question: What are the top five priorities on your own to do list right now?
William Heath: It is difficult to narrow my priority list down to five without being too overarching or leaving something off the list. We will always have overarching goals that we will work on every year. Included in this work is school safety, increasing test scores, building positive and supportive building cultures, and preparing our students with the hard and soft skills needed for a successful future. Those do not go away and will always be a work in progress.
There are some pressing issues that I can be more specific on for this article. First, we need to find ways to recruit quality full time, part time, and temporary staff. As mentioned before, the candidate pool for positions within schools is getting smaller. We once had fifty plus candidates for a teaching position and now we are lucky to get more than five candidates. Second, we need to build our district message through positive public relations. Let's be honest, Facebook has a tendency to be negative and less than factual. Unfortunately many people use it as their primary source of information. The district needs to take a proactive approach to fighting the negativity and showcase all of the amazing things that we do as a district. Third, we need to align our curriculum and student supports PK - 12 grade. Across the district you will find countless bright spots. For us to be truly successful we need to align all of those bright spots into a central focus. Fourth, we need to develop long term fiscal planning for facilities. With the passing of the bond extension we are able to take care of our most expensive current facility concerns. We now need to develop long term fiscal plans that will ensure that we can maintain our facilities and make needed repairs so that they remain useful well into the future. Finally, we need to ensure that we are getting the most out of our third party contracts that the district utilizes for transportation, food service, cleaning and maintenance, and substitutes. There are always positives and negatives to utilizing third party contracts. It is important that we have high standards and effective review processes for each of these contracts.
Question: What do you see as your biggest accomplishment in your three years as Portland’s superintendent?
William Heath: Any plan or idea that I have does not happen without the support and hard work of our district staff. I really don’t have any personal accomplishments as they are truly district and staff accomplishments. I would point directly to the quality staff that we have and the staff that we have hired over the past couple of years as our greatest resource. The amount of work that these individuals put in on a daily basis is impressive. Because of this we are able to look at big items that will have big results. Three years ago we started working on building a Pre-Kindergarten through twelfth grade district. All of our accomplishments are focused directly towards achieving that goal. To be a true PreK - 12 district all of our policies, practices, and curriculum needs to be aligned. This seems simple but it is extremely complex and difficult to accomplish. What we start in PK we will finish in 12th grade. In doing this we will create a system where every student receives an equal education that is focused on the individual needs and interests of the student. In the past three years we have made significant progress towards achieving this goal. This was not my accomplishment but the accomplishments of our staff. If I was to measure our progress so far I would say that we are at least a year, if not two years, ahead of schedule. It is impressive to see this team in action.
Question: Do you have any concerns for the district?
William Heath: Any concerns that I have I am confident that we can handle. My biggest concerns for the district fall into two areas. The first area is the growing number of students who are demonstrating characteristics of children who have been through trauma. This trend is witnessed throughout Ionia County as well as across the State. Our staff has done an excellent job of developing plans for these students and helping them throughout their day. We have added Behavior Coaches to both Oakwood and Westwood to assist staff in implementing these plans. But, as we look to the future, I only see these numbers increasing. This will put a strain on our staff and budget. These students, with the right supports, can be successful in our schools.
The second area that I am concerned about is the polarization that we see in politics and society entering into our schools. We are seeing more and more often that concerns are going directly to Facebook and other social media sites before ever being reported to the school. The negativity that we see on social media not only hurts our schools but hurts the image of our community. We all need to remember that you can’t believe everything you see online. Unfortunately, dialogue seems to be a thing of the past instead of how we solve problems. This isn’t a Portland problem but a national problem. When we take what appears to be the norm nationally and apply it to how we work with our schools and our community I have concerns. Portland is a small town community that encourages dialogue and discussion based on facts and not rumors. This has always been my experiences in Portland and I fear that it may change. We need to listen more than we speak and we need to agree to work together to raise and educate our children. That is what a small town does and that is what Portland does. This is definitely a two way street and I have instructed my administrative team to listen for understanding and to work through any problem that parents, students, or the community brings to them. Ultimately, we have the same goal. I have seen bumper stickers that say “Keep Portland Weird.” If being weird is working together to solve problems, giving people a chance, and listening for understanding, then weird is definitely something we should strive for. Portland can and should be different. That is why we live and work here.