When Rep. Andrea Salinas, a Democrat representing Lake Oswego and Southwest Portland, started hearing from constituents concerned about staffing cuts at Portland schools, she had a few questions, and she started looking into it.
“I’m not trying to accuse anybody, but I’m trying to get to the bottom of what is really there — what is the truth?” Salinas said. “What are the numbers, and what can be done to really support our kids?”
Salinas, along with representatives Travis Nelson D-Portland and Khanh Pham D-Portland, along with senators Kayse Jama, D-Portland, and Akasha Lawrence Spence, D-Portland, signed the letter, dated March 2.
“The district’s budget situation as reported and explained to us by educators, parents, and students, has caused grave concerns among a few of Oregon’s lawmakers, and members of the BIPOC Caucus, who represent the PPS community in the Oregon legislature,” they wrote.
The legislators say enrollment declines shouldn’t mean budget cuts with state funding and other one-time funds available. They called for maintaining “current services” for students and questioned why the district budget cuts focused on classroom positions, especially staff who work with English language learners, low-income students and students with disabilities.
“We also want to express our frustration that PPS’ proposed budget cuts were all aimed at direct student contact positions,” the legislators wrote.
The five legislators posed four questions for the district to answer, including questions about how large the district’s budget shortfall is expected to be, how federal funds from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) are being spent, and what cuts are expected to administrators.
“Are we placing our budget dollars in the right places? And if cuts need to happen, are we cutting in the right places?” Salinas asked in an interview with OPB. “I think those are the questions we are all asking, and hoping to get clearer answers on.”
The letter comes more than a month before Supt. Guadalupe Guerrero is set to present the district’s 2022-2023 budget proposal. But the budget process has already started.
Since district officials announced staffing cuts due to enrollment declines last month, numbers and information about the true nature of potential cuts have been conflicting. District officials initially shared numbers for elementary school staff reductions. At a board meeting last week, officials projected a “staffing adjustment” of 140 positions.
In their letter, the legislators cite a loss of 120 teaching positions. That’s consistent with the number of eliminated positions the Portland Association of Teachers shared with its members in mid-February.
Like the legislators, the union representing Portland teachers has asked that teaching cuts be a last resort. At a district board meeting this past Tuesday, PAT president Elizabeth Thiel discussed state funding and thanked district officials for lowering class sizes in middle school. Thiel asked district officials to consider using funds to continue to lower class sizes in all schools.
“We still have the opportunity to make next year a better year,” Thiel said. “The resources are available, the need is undeniable, and the teachers are here and wanting to stay in our school communities.”
Board members expressed concern about the budget decisions and called for transparency from the district in explaining their decision-making.
“I think it’s really important that we start with the same assumptions,” said PPS vice-chair Andrew Scott.
Board members plan to ask more questions of the district at a meeting next Wednesday.
By late Friday afternoon, Portland Public Schools officials had not responded to OPB’s request for comment.