A “Sitdown” with Portland Schools Superintendent Heath
This school year has been one of nearly weekly changes for parents and students. From virtual learning days, to bus route reductions and staffing changes, the school year has seen a lot of change. To help keep everyone up to date on the latest developments we reached out to Portland Public Schools superintendent Will Heath for a COVID-style virtual “sitdown.” The following has been edited for length and clarity.
BEACON: I understand that the bus service reductions have ended. I take it you were able to hire a few new drivers. Considering that unemployment is as high as it is, what do you think accounts for the difficulty that the district has had in attracting and retaining drivers?
HEATH: Every district in the State of Michigan that provides transportation is struggling to maintain staffing levels. Driving a bus is a unique career with its own positives and negatives that limit the number of people who want to drive. It is a great job for many people but it doesn’t always fit for everyone. So, we have a smaller pool of people to draw from and there is a process to get qualified.
BEACON: To attract new drivers PPS increased hourly pay to $20 for the remainder of the school year. What is the plan to retain drivers once they revert to $15 an hour?
HEATH: PPS has always had a competitive wage in our area for bus drivers. Our bus driver hourly rate, prior to this increase, was between $15.99 and $16.74 per hour. We increased the wage to $20 an hour, in part, to encourage people to look into becoming a driver but more importantly to recognize the increased difficulties and responsibilities that our drivers are working through this school year. We will review our wages in comparison to other districts at the end of the year to make sure that our driver wages continue to be competitive.
BEACON: Since the first of the year, we haven't had any notifications of COVID-19 cases in PPS until the past few weeks when we had by my count 4 over a matter of days. Can you give our readers an update on the situation. To what do you attribute this sudden change?
HEATH: There is definitely a decrease in cases across the county since winter break. The district notifies the school community of positive cases that are in school or at a school event. Many of our community's positive cases are already quarantined from previous contact outside of school and therefore do not result in contact tracing by the school. The handful of cases that we have had in school since break are inevitable from time to time.
BEACON: PPS is currently doing virtual days on Wednesdays. This was originally through 1st semester only then continued for the 3rd quarter. What is the plan for the 4th quarter?
HEATH: At the March 8th Board meeting the School Board approved the 4th quarter calendar to include Virtual Instruction Days. This calendar includes virtual days on Tuesday, April 13 (K-7 only), and on the following Wednesdays April 21, 28, and May 5, 12, 19, and 26.
BEACON: Has the district seen a big change in parents choosing virtual vs. in-person learning as the school year has progressed?
HEATH: We have seen a steady change from virtual to in-person the entire year as families feel more comfortable sending their children to school. We started the year around 25% virtual and now we are closer to 10% virtual.
BEACON: Oakwood Elementary Principal, Mrs. Findley stepped down from her role earlier this month is that right?
HEATH: Mrs. Findlay has left her position as the Oakwood principal. Her five years with the district was a success for both her and Oakwood. She will be missed.
BEACON: Can you tell our readers about the plan for the interim as well as for the position long term?
HEATH: As we work to fill the position we have hired an interim principal. Mrs. Kelly Roe is a retired elementary school principal from Morrice. She is excited to get back in the game and support our students. Mrs. Roe is an accomplished teacher and administrator and we are lucky to have her with us for the end of the year. We are currently in the interview process for the next principal. We are hopeful to have a candidate for Board approval on April 19th. Our goal is to start integrating the new principal into the district before the end of the year so that they can have a successful transition into the district.
BEACON: Over the past few years improvements have been happening at buildings across the district related to the bond issue. Where is the district in the process?
HEATH: Our bond project is going really well. Our first phase included all of our outside work and the second phase included all of our work inside the buildings. The second phase of three phases was completed this summer. COVID protocols have limited the number of people in our buildings and I look forward to the day that more of our community can see the work that is now complete. Our buildings look great! Big items in the second phase included the four classroom addition to Oakwood which houses our DK program, all new media centers in each school, high school and middle school gym bleachers, elementary school gym floor replacement, new carpet in every building, complete Middle School locker room and cafeteria remodel, and numerous other smaller projects in each building.
BEACON: What is next for the bond issue improvements?
HEATH: The third and final phase will be completed during the summer of 2022. The big items in phase three will be new roofs for all the buildings, a salt/landscape storage building, and technology purchases.