How do Portland’s proposed budget cuts impact special education? Families, school district staff want to know

By Natalie Pate (OPB)
March 7, 2024 2:23 a.m.

Several questions linger as Portland Public Schools progresses with $30 million in proposed budget cuts for next year

The Portland community is in the middle of a confusing, scary and frustrating time as Oregon’s largest school district works to cut $30 million from next year’s budget. But specifics on those cuts remain unclear, and a lot hangs in the balance.

Families and Portland Public Schools staff members have received specific, employee-level details expected at individual schools as campus administrators make decisions based on projected allocations. Some staff members are in the dark, hoping for new assignments next year; others know their positions are likely being eliminated entirely.


Many concerns have swirled especially around cuts to library staff, art departments and special education.

But Portland Public Schools officials have largely evaded big questions about the budget, saying it’s too soon in the approval process to say much, and that individual schools are making many of the decisions, not the district.

PPS has declined requests to speak on the record with OPB about specifics. OPB and others are waiting for the results of various public records requests.

A conversation in Tuesday night’s school board meeting brought some clarity but little by way of specifics.

How did we get here? And where is here?

PPS officials warned employees and families last year that with declining enrollment, inflation, inadequate state funding and the end of one-time federal COVID relief dollars, they’d be looking at leaner budgets in the near future. It’s the same challenge that districts across the state, including Salem-Keizer, and others across the country are facing.

These points were made often by district leaders during Portland’s historic teachers strike in November as well, which settled a contract that will cost tens of millions more than was already budgeted. That’s on top of previous budget constraints and the costs of other union contracts.

District officials in the fall projected roughly $130 million in cuts over the life of the teachers’ new contract — $10 million from this year’s budget, $41 million in the spring cycle for next year’s budget and $79 million in the third year.

Now, the district is proposing cuts to meet those financial demands.

The district plans to cover half of the gap for next year — about $15 million — through cuts from central operations.

However, the Portland Association of Teachers recently shared estimates with its members showing that proposed central office cuts include dozens of employees who serve students directly. Many of them support students with special needs.

FILE: (Left to right) Members of the Portland Public Schools Board of Education Michelle DePass, Herman Greene, Gary Hollands and Julia Brim-Edwards, listen to a PPS student and parent at a meeting in November 2023.

FILE: (Left to right) Members of the Portland Public Schools Board of Education Michelle DePass, Herman Greene, Gary Hollands and Julia Brim-Edwards, listen to a PPS student and parent at a meeting in November 2023.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

Out of the proposed non-management, central office cuts, PAT members were told that 146 full-time positions — which are up for cuts or reductions — are student-facing. Another 25 are “possibly” student-facing.

These are out of the estimated 222 total full-time equivalents proposed central office cuts — nearly 150 are special education professionals.

Alissa Pollard is one of them. Pollard is the occupational therapist on the district’s assistive technology team. She was “unassigned” for next school year, as of Feb. 16, meaning her position is cut under the current proposal.

In testimony to the Portland school board Tuesday, Pollard called out the board’s resolution to recognize “Classified and Non-Represented Employee Appreciation Week” about two and half weeks after cuts were announced.

Passing this resolution now, she said, “rings hollow and disingenuous.” Her accusation garnered applause and cheers from the audience.

“Some of the very people receiving [recognition for years of service] have gotten notifications that they will be bumped out of their community, that their jobs have been reduced or eliminated entirely,” Pollard said. “This is an odd way to show appreciation.”


She went on to speak against the proposed budget cuts specifically affecting special education programs, including the district’s plan to “decentralize” teams that help provide food to some of Portland’s most medically fragile children.

“Eliminating a team with expertise in complex feeding needs will place our paraeducators in a perilous position when it comes to gambling with our students’ lives during mealtimes at school,” she said.

Pollard told the school board the cuts would directly impact employees’ abilities to implement free and appropriate public education for all students, which is required by federal law. She similarly criticized cuts to programs that provide technological assistance and specialized physical education to students with disabilities.

“Make no mistake: cuts to our assistive technology and feeding teams, as well as adapted P.E. and other teams, is not a ‘decentralization’ of resources,” she said. “It is an elimination of resources.”

What special education changes is the district proposing with these cuts?

Jey Buno, chief of student support services for the school district, spoke to the board Tuesday as well, presenting a 15-page memo that outlines the district’s plan for special education changes and the rationale for the budget recommendations.

Buno said there’s a limit to the amount of federal funding the district can receive for special education services due to what he called an “arbitrary cap” placed on them by the state — something he’s been fighting against at the Oregon Legislature.

Oregon gives districts money for students with special needs based on a weighted enrollment formula, but it caps available funding at 11% of the student body, a limit that doesn’t exist in most states. More than 7,400 Portland students are enrolled in special education this year — about 16.5% of the total student population.

“Any additional investment in special education at this time without additional funding from the state will result in a cut to other essential services provided to students in PPS,” Buno said.

The school district is proposing four key shifts in the central special education department and select services.

The first is the elimination of four administrative staff within the central department. This change, Buno said, is meant to make the team more efficient and effective.

The second is a reduction in the number of board-certified behavioral analysts, who help students with disabilities find alternatives to potentially disruptive behaviors. This, he said, was not a budget reduction, but rather would allow the district to add more full-time equivalent positions in schools for jobs such as psychologists, special education teachers and paraeducators.

However, according to one of the behavior analysts being unassigned, it’s still not clear how these cuts and changes will play out in the schools, especially with only two remaining analysts left to serve all students in need. These are staff members who go from school to school, classroom to classroom to help train, give assessments and create support plans based on the specific needs of individual students.

“We will continue to have these necessary experts within our system,” Buno stressed in the memo. “However, feedback has also been clear, these resources have not been viewed… as support, but instead, [have] resulted in more paperwork than actual collaboration or student-centered services.”

The third shift “decentralizes” feeding assessment and training — one of the changes that drew opposition Tuesday from Pollard and others. Buno said the current system, which has a small central team making all the decisions, has become unsustainable.

Their plan is to push more of the services into the schools and onto building service providers, such as educational service districts that schools already partner with. He said they have spent time in the last two years training people on feeding specifically and will continue to do so when onboarding new staff.

Students would still get needed feeding services, Buno said, maintaining that the current central feeding team is focused on training and assessment rather than direct services to students. Students with feeding needs are already on the caseloads of the building staff, but he said they will work with the unions to provide extra compensation and training under this plan.

Still, people in the audience were vocal during Tuesday’s meeting about their skepticism, saying they’re already not getting the training they need and this will put added burdens on the remaining staff.

The final bucket of proposed shifts is similar to that of the feeding teams — “decentralizing” the district’s assistive technology team and changing the way PPS runs adapted physical education.

Buno said PPS will continue to provide adapted physical education to students with the most significant motor or medical needs, and moving forward, students with disabilities will have access to physical education with nondisabled peers as is required by federal law.

While the memo and Buno’s presentation to the board Tuesday outlined a lot of information, it did not include some key information — including how much money these proposed cuts are expected to save the district. Board members requested more information on this from the district.

The school board isn’t expected to approve final cuts to the budget until May.