After weeks of pressure from teachers and parents, the school board of Oregon’s largest district will meet on Tuesday evening to approve next year’s $1.89 billion budget.
At a board work session last week, Portland Public Schools administrators shared that there’s an extra $9 million available for the district due to an adjustment in the state school fund.
While some board members have expressed concern about spending down one-time reserve funds, the board decided against adding padding its contingency, instead deciding to direct the additional money to serve students.
A small part of the $9 million — $600,000 — has been allocated to charter schools, following a board vote earlier this month in support of an increased pass-through rate for K-8 charters.
The bigger beneficiary of the additional state revenue will be district programs that help students with disabilities who need special education.
Officials said they’re proposing the school district add back at least $1.5 million of funds originally proposed to be cut from the budget, in part because of a legal mandate to maintain service levels.
“We really don’t have the option, on special education services, if there’s a legal obligation with IEPs [Individualized Education Plans], that $1.5 will fund the necessary 13 FTE in special education,” said Portland Public Schools Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero during last week’s meeting. “FTE” is an acronym for “full-time equivalent,” and is used to calculate total staffing including full-time and part-time workers.
Even with $9 million in additional school district funding, special education programs will still face a $500,000 reduction between this academic year and next year and will have five fewer full-time positions. When the budget was first proposed, special education was primed to lose at least 18 full-time equivalent positions.
“Our projected enrollment and special education identification shows the need for 829 special education FTE next year from the general fund, compared to 834 this year,” Portland Public Schools officials wrote in a statement shared with OPB on Friday. “These numbers are subject to change as enrollment shifts and additional students are identified for special education services.”
The school district did not provide any information to OPB about which schools would be impacted by the reductions.
Community members have been hoping for more funding for special education, class size reductions and mental health support for students. And while the budget does direct funding towards those initiatives, some community members say the budget Portland Public Schools is preparing to approve does not go far enough.
Special education spending appears to lag behind a growing need
Teachers familiar with special education programs say demand for those services is poised to increase, even as the district proposes cutting positions.
Moira Finnegan, a high school speech-language pathologist, said she is happy with funds being added back to special education. Finnegan has been showing up at board meetings this spring, speaking during public comment. She said she wants the board to know that the students affected by special education cuts are the same students the district has pledged to help, including many Black and Native American students.
“Cutting supports for these students is not in keeping with the district’s values, and does not align with their goal of improving academic and life outcomes for historically underserved students,” Finnegan said.
Finnegan works at Franklin High School in Southeast Portland.
“We are still losing positions next year, and that’s in the context of caseloads looking like they may be increasing significantly,” she said.
This spring, about 130 new students have qualified for special education, she said, with over 900 evaluations for special education still being completed. Depending on the outcome of those evaluations, as many as 1,000 more students could qualify for special education services.
Finnegan said this year has been the most challenging yet for her and her colleagues. Students have struggled to get used to in-person school, and have required more support than ever.
She compared working in special education to spinning plates, trying to help students in both high-needs and general-education classrooms, and maintaining services to all of the students on her caseload of about 50.
“What I’d like to see is special education staffed to a level that allows us to meet our students’ needs without burning ourselves out,” Finnegan said.
“Our wonderful special education teacher, who is a brand-new teacher this year, has been hit and scratched, grabbed, our paraeducators have been hit ... by several students who also had trouble getting back into the swing of the school routine,” Finnegan said.
There is a chance that special education staffing could remain unaffected going into next year.
At least one board document for Tuesday’s school board meeting shows $1.8 million going to special education, which would allow the district to add back 18 full-time equivalent positions.
In a statement to OPB, district officials said that students who receive special education services “will receive the highest level of support our resources allow,” based on specific staff-to-student ratios.
Finnegan said those ratios could be smaller, with more staff, to adequately serve every student with an individualized education plan.
“Even if they don’t make any cuts to special education, that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re staffed to the level of student need that we experience in schools,” Finnegan said. “We would love to be staffed to meet the level of need that we see on our caseloads.”
Staffing to reduce large classes
In documents released ahead of Tuesday’s budget vote, plans for the $9 million that has yet to be allocated read like a summary of the school district’s biggest challenges: adding educational assistants to elementary and K-8 schools, reducing class sizes for elementary schools, providing support to Southeast schools affected by boundary changes, hiring mental-health professionals for students at K-8s and middle schools, bringing on campus safety associates for middle and high schools, paying retention bonuses for paraeducators, and adding funding for student activities and travel.
Plans for the $9 million include funding 25 full-time equivalent educational assistants “to further improve student to adult ratio in high-need or high-leverage classrooms” and five other staff positions to “support class size reductions.”
In addition to special education, class sizes have consistently come up during public comment in the budget process.
Students, parents and teachers have discussed how staff reductions and larger classes could affect school communities still recovering from more than two challenging years working during the pandemic.
Last week, representatives from 12 different elementary schools, most of them parent-teacher-association presidents, sent a letter to the board, asking them to reverse staffing cuts proposed for next school year. Schools are set to lose 87 full-time equivalent teachers, with the biggest loss at the elementary school level.
“At a very basic level, PPS is its students and its teachers,” they wrote in the letter. “And these two elements need more support in 2022-2023 than is outlined in the proposed budget.”
Data from the school district shows that classrooms in some schools are set to reach 31 in some elementary schools, and 34 in some middle schools.
While representatives from at least two of the schools that signed the letter are not facing any cuts, parents shared heartfelt concerns about cuts to school staff.
“The district talks about equitable education, but taking staff positions away from schools and students who need it the most is not equitable,” wrote the Peninsula Elementary PTA in a statement in the letter.
“As a small but beloved neighborhood school, it’s easy to see how the loss of 1.5 FTE positions will only continue to drive down enrollment for us, and all neighborhood schools, as those with the means to go elsewhere withdraw from these larger class sizes.”
Portland Public Schools has already lost enrollment over the last two years. With most state funding based on a per-student funding formula, that loss of students has cost PPS — and further erosion of enrollment would likely continue to cost the state’s largest district financially.