This spring’s Portland Public Schools budget conversation started with declining enrollment and massive projected teacher cuts.

The season is ending in a similar place but on a smaller scale. Though enrollment is still projected to decline, and there will be fewer teacher positions next school year, Oregon’s largest school district has made it through another budget process without layoffs.

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The district community showed up in great numbers for the board vote Tuesday evening, some holding signs related to the budget and Tuesday’s vote on school boundary changes in Southeast Portland.

The PPS board of directors listened to public comment ahead of a budget vote Tuesday May 24, 2022. Longtime substitute teacher Greg Burrill appeared via Zoom. "We need to do something," Burrill said. "... Portland Public Schools is falling apart."

The PPS board of directors listened to public comment ahead of a budget vote Tuesday May 24, 2022. Longtime substitute teacher Greg Burrill appeared via Zoom. "We need to do something," Burrill said. "... Portland Public Schools is falling apart."

Elizabeth Miller / OPB

District employees and families challenged budget and boundary plans in public comment, and they advocated better support and salaries for the school district’s custodians and nutrition service workers. The board followed by approving a contract with the district’s Amalgamated Transit Union and adopting the boundary changes, with an amendment to hold off on any changes to Lent Elementary for a year in order to engage the community in the decision-making process.

For more than two hours, the board discussed and debated the district budget.

Four members of the board voted to approve the spending plan, with Julia Brim-Edwards voting no and another board member, Gary Hollands, abstaining. Board Chair Michelle DePass wasn’t in attendance, and the board’s student representative Jackson Weinberg voted no saying he hadn’t had enough time with the budget.

The budget resembles the original plan shared with the board over a month ago, but it does include new initiatives thanks to a $9 million dollar state funding adjustment. About $1.8 million of the $9 million will go to completely restoring proposed cuts to special education funding in the face of a potential increase in students who may be receiving services.

The budget process still isn’t over. The board will vote again in June, with the possibility of further updates by then. Board members asked district staff to look into a couple of potential new budget items, both of them relating to middle school and seemingly in response to comments from teachers.

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“Bring yourself back to your middle school time,” started Mt. Tabor Middle School math teacher Allison Ellsworth.

The board room at the Portland Public Schools district office was packed with students, families, and teachers for the budget vote Tuesday, May 24, 2022.

The board room at the Portland Public Schools district office was packed with students, families, and teachers for the budget vote Tuesday, May 24, 2022.

Elizabeth Miller / OPB

“Now I ask you to put yourself in the shoes of our current middle schoolers. They were in the middle of 4th, or 5th, or 6th grade when the COVID pandemic started. They have spent the time that you spent trying out your fluid identities and community on their own, at home, many losing family and community members, their lives upended by the loss of most or all of the structures upon which they depended.”

Ellsworth then asked the board to imagine what it’s like for middle school teachers, asking the board for smaller classes, more time, and full-time restorative justice coordinators based at middle schools.

That request was echoed by Portland Association of Teachers president-elect Angela Bonilla, who also asked the board to consider an amendment to the budget to increase staff at the district’s highest need middle schools, limiting class sizes to 30.

Board members heard Bonilla’s requests and asked district staff to figure out the costs, and what may have to be sacrificed to make that happen ahead of the final budget vote June 14.

While board members appeared to respond to public pressure in increasing attention on middle schools, some funding concerns brought up during this spring’s budget process remained, including unfilled positions and low pay among nutrition service workers and custodians.

There are also some unknowns. The district set aside $750,000 in one-time federal funds to support middle schools, but it’s not yet clear what that money will fund. Middle school leaders are drafting school improvement plans. The district is also anticipating grant money from House Bill 4030, passed earlier his year to provide districts with funds for teacher retention and recruitment.

Perhaps the biggest unknown going forward is how next year’s budget process will go. Board members and Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero agreed that there may be tough conversations in the future, especially with enrollment projected to decline — and possibly funding along with it —with a depleted reserves account.

“Next year’s budget conversation will require difficult tradeoffs that could create significant disruptions next year when we don’t have access to large amounts of one-time money,” Guerrero said.

But Guerrero, board members, teachers, and the few parents remaining at the end of the meeting all agreed on one way avoid a financial cliff next year: heading down to Salem to lobby the legislature for more school funding.

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