Like many Oregon school districts, Portland Public Schools is facing a financial challenge.
“State revenue is not keeping up with the cost of operating our schools, and our students’ needs continue to grow,” said Portland Public Schools Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero in a written budget message document shared at Tuesday’s board meeting.
Guerrero cited “rising expenses, limited revenue, and declining enrollment” in presenting a $2.17 billion budget for next year.
At Tuesday’s board meeting, Chief of Staff Jonathan Garcia led the budget presentation with the superintendent out sick.
“Our challenge is to honor all of our commitments within the constraints of the moment,” Garcia said.
This is the first public presentation of the proposed budget. According to the budget calendar, the board is set to approve the budget May 23 before formally adopting it June 13.
The superintendent’s spending plan uses $43 million in reserves as well as $247.7 million in special revenue funds, which includes federal COVID relief dollars. The budget also outlines new and continuing efforts to meet student needs and address other parts of the school experience outside of the classroom.
At the same time, Oregon’s largest school district is projecting a 1% decline in enrollment and planning a 3% reduction in full-time equivalent employees, or a loss of 89.6 FTE.
District administrators said that might not mean staff layoffs.
New staff positions to meet student needs
The district is proposing school staffing declines across the board with the biggest reduction in elementary school staff. PPS is also planning to cut staff by closing the Online Learning Academy and through previously approved boundary and program shifts in southeast schools.
How FTE at individual schools will be affected was not directly addressed during Tuesday’s board meeting, but Board Chair Andrew Scott did mention it as a future topic of conversation.
“Within these limited resources … we have put together a plan that we think is going to continue to move us on this path, we also know that $9.9 billion, which is the assumption here, doesn’t fund current service level,” Scott said, referring to Gov. Tina Kotek’s proposal for the state school fund which education leaders across the state say is not enough.
Whether projected staff reductions will lead to layoffs depends on whether current staff members decide to stay in their jobs, retire or move somewhere else. Garcia said administrators are still waiting on more information from the district human resources department about that.
Typically, schools receive their staffing allocations in the spring and teachers who are not part of those allocations are unassigned, only to be reassigned to new positions elsewhere in the district when retirements or departures open up those positions.
But during her planned comments at the meeting, Portland Association of Teachers president Angela Bonilla said she was concerned about the state of that process. She said over 240 full-time staffers are unassigned later than usual.
“We have several educators who are still unassigned and do not have a position, and typically that is done before spring break,” Bonilla said.
Bonilla asked the district to “be honest with educators” and tell them what’s going on.
“Educators are sharing that they feel like they’re being strung along,” she said. “I have emails from educators who are actively considering leaving the district because of the uncertainty and not knowing where they will be next year.
Despite the reductions in staff, district officials maintain that class sizes will mostly remain under maximum thresholds.
“The average projected class size for next school year is 22.6 students per homeroom teacher at the elementary level,” said Renard Adams, the district’s chief of research, assessment and accountability. According to district data, 16 out of 816 homerooms will be “at the class size maximum.”
There was no data shared publicly on middle school class sizes, though according to district budget documents, “improved” class sizes are set to continue.
Most of the Southeast Portland schools included in next year’s boundary changes will see staff reductions, including the program resulting from the merger of Bridger K-5 and Creative Science K-8. The new Bridger Creative Science school has a projected enrollment of 564 students. Students currently enrolled in Bridger’s dual-language program will move to Lent next year. There’s a reduction of 22 FTE between Bridger and Creative Science in the merger, though officials said 10 FTE will be allocated to supporting students in those school transitions — with specifics dependent on what principals say they need.
Some schools, including several middle schools serving high needs students, are not projected to lose enrollment but are set to lose staff.
The closure of PPS’ Online Learning Academy, a program the district is shutting down at the end this school year, will result in a reduction of 34.25 full-time equivalent staff. Online Learning Academy families continue to fight the decision. Families of two children filed a complaint in U.S. district court last week, alleging the school district is violating the Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act by shutting down a safe environment for students.
There are also places where staffing will increase: The district wants to add full-time instructional coaches to every elementary, middle and K-8 school. PPS Chief Academic Officer Kimberlee Armstrong said these changes will help the district reach its equity goals, including the goal to close achievement gaps for the district’s Black and Native American students.
“We must increase instructional leadership capacity across the system,” Armstrong said. “To continue ensuring that principals receive professional learning sessions on instructional coaching.”
There are also plans to hire a civil rights coordinator for the district, “to ensure students are provided school environments free from discrimination, from harassment, and bullying.”
The district also has included $1.2 million in its budget to launch the Center for Black Excellence, which is being supported by 2020 bond funds.
The district has about $36 million remaining in federal COVID relief dollars that expire in 2024. Some of those funds will go to summer programming and reading specialists, while some of the dollars are being used to offer every school a grant to fund site-specific support. The ESSER School Improvement Grants range from “roughly $100,000 to $120,000.”
Some schools are using the grant to fund staff positions, including educational assistants, teachers, and mental and behavioral health support positions.
The idea of funding staff positions with one-time funds raised questions for board members, but district administrators said the money isn’t hiring new staff. Instead, the money is more likely to give a current staff member more hours.
Now that Superintendent Guerrero and his leadership team have presented the budget to the school board, district staff plan to spend the next few weeks answering board member questions and hearing from the public. District staff are also expected to share more information about the proposed budget and outline what it means for schools, staff and students.
Big questions remain, including how much PPS saved by leaving positions unfilled last year and where those funds went. District officials say there will be more information on that shared in the coming weeks.
Several school board members also want to know about student outcomes, especially for Black students and other students of color. As the district prepares its budget for next year, how have the decisions made last year affected student achievement?
The board is holding its next budget meeting May 4.