A Portland Public Schools audit from the Oregon secretary of state’s office in 2019 revealed a multitude of problems within the state’s largest school district, including shortcomings at schools serving large numbers of historically underrepresented and lower-income students. Now, more than three years later, a follow-up report released on Wednesday shows PPS still has a lot of that same work to do.
The original audit stated that among other issues: PPS had failed students of color as well as students from low-income households in terms of student success, had not made adequate efforts to mitigate high turnover of employees and did not have a transparent budget. Some of those issues still remain, even if there have been slight improvements made in the past few years.
In its response, PPS highlighted “significant progress” it says the district is making, while acknowledging that it has work still remaining, particularly to improve outcomes for students of color.
“We appreciate the Oregon Audits Division for sharing its thoughts on the issues facing PPS,” wrote Amy Kohnstamm, chair of the PPS school board audit committee, and Jonathan Garcia, PPS chief of staff, in a joint statement. “We agree: PPS still has substantial work to do to improve results for Black, Indigenous and Students of Color (BIPOC).”
The new follow-up report, from Oregon Secretary of State Shemia Fagan and Oregon Audits Division Audits Director Kip Memmott, notes that PPS has made some improvements. Namely, it states the district has improved support for schools that serve high percentages of lower-income students, including adding staff such as counselors and assistant principals. It also said PPS has done some work to prioritize racial equity and increase investment into instructional staff development. Auditors also credited PPS for developing a strategic plan and making its budget more transparent.
But, PPS still has a ways to go in addressing all of the secretary of state’s concerns.
“The district’s prioritization of racial equity is important and must be highlighted,” Secretary Fagan said Wednesday morning in a press conference. “And because of the district’s priority for racial equity, the district should take immediate steps to implement the remaining recommendations of this audit.”
In February 2020, about a year after the original audit came out, OPB found that PPS had fully implemented only two of 15 recommendations made by the secretary of state’s office. Those completed recommendations, as noted by PPS at the time, related to creating tighter controls over credit card use and better management of contracts.
Wednesday’s report, another two years later, shows PPS is in the same spot — with only two of 15 original recommendations fully implemented. Though, the secretary of state’s office found one of the two recommendations implemented differed from PPS’ reports. The secretary of state’s office agrees PPS has completed work to improve control over purchasing card use — like requiring review for non-standard and large transactions and policy guidance on purchases like meals, gifts and parties.
The secretary of state’s office found that the other recommendation, about better management of contracts PPS previously said it had completed, has only been partially implemented.
However, auditors say the district has fully implemented another recommendation: the development of core curriculum for schools and ensuring adequate training for teachers, particularly newer teachers or those with less experience.
According to the new report, PPS has at least partially implemented the remaining 13 recommendations.
But, according to the report, there are still many concerns for the district including continuing high turnover for principals and teachers, a continuing lack of detail in spending and saving as well as a lack of transparency on how it tackles issues teachers face.
The report states that PPS management needs to focus much of its work on improving operations at “high-poverty” schools. For Secretary of State Fagan, that priority is personal.
“Education pulled my family out of poverty,” Fagan said in a statement. “We must do everything we can to provide the opportunities I received to kids today, and that includes specific policies to support students of color. My journey out of poverty wasn’t easy, but the opportunities I received are not equally shared with Black and Latino students. We need to change that.”
PPS said that this work is also personal for district leaders.
“[T]his work is deeply personal for us, too. Superintendent [Guadelupe] Guerrero, Chair [Michelle] DePass and the majority of our PPS senior leadership have dedicated their entire careers to lifting up the experience of Black and Brown students, in part because they, too, went through an American education system that was not designed for them to succeed,” Kohnstamm and Garcia wrote in their statement.
The report states PPS needs to focus on high turnover and low teacher experience, especially at those high-poverty schools, and address transfer and hiring practices that promote high turnover and lower experience. In addition, the report calls for clear feedback loops with teachers when it comes to student conduct and classroom disruption issues in those schools.
One of the original recommendations from the secretary of state’s office was for PPS to regularly track, and publicly report on, teacher and principal turnover as well as the number of school initiatives with a specific focus on schools that serve low-income students.
The report states that PPS had publicly presented a report on teacher and administrator turnover, disaggregated by race, but that analysis was done district-wide, without a focus on individual schools.
After the secretary of state’s office submitted follow-up questions to the district, the PPS School Board’s Audit Committee requested the district provide a list of administrator turnover at schools serving lower-income students. But, the report states, it didn’t appear the board publicly discussed that data.
The secretary of state’s office ended up doing its own analysis on turnover of principals at PPS schools receiving Title I funding — federal funding focused on schools with high percentages of low-income students. It found significant turnover, “with 76% of the principals at Title I schools in 2018-19 no longer at the same schools in 2020-21.”
Although the report said that PPS has made some progress in improving its budget transparency, it still states the school board needs to conduct “in-depth and public benchmarking of spending against comparable peers.”
The state report says that although there has been some strong oversight from the board, there have also been many gaps — specifically in terms of the investigation into spending and saving and in regard to equity issues.
“Making progress in these areas requires tackling difficult and potentially controversial staffing and financial issues,” the report states. “However, doing so can help increase the performance of the district’s African-American, Latino, and economically disadvantaged students, an area where the original audit found PPS lagged its peers.”
State Audit Manager Andrew Love said there’s no hard deadline for PPS to implement all of the secretary of state’s improvements.
“Some of these recommendations are big picture recommendations, some are minor things they can change as soon as they can,” Love said. “The challenge here with an audit is we don’t have any authority to force implementation. We make recommendations. It’s up to the management of the district to implement and the board to implement.”
PPS said that it’s proud of the work it has gotten done while facing the the pandemic.
“Despite the significant impacts of the global pandemic, which disrupted school operations and exacerbated the racial inequalities in our society, PPS made significant progress on 13 of the 15 recommendations made by the Secretary of State’s Office in 2019, having fully implemented the additional two,” Kohnstamm and Garcia said in their joint statement.
The report acknowledges the pandemic has not helped in PPS’ progress, but it stressed just how important the work is for underrepresented students.
“Given national trends and the PPS-specific achievement testing during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is likely many of these students have suffered significant academic setbacks during the pandemic, further increasing the urgency of reducing inequities at the district’s high-poverty schools,” the report reads.