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Layoffs, Short Years, Oregon Schools Present Budget Options

Three days after the co-chairs of Oregon’s Ways and Means committee unveiled their state budget, the first school districts in the state are grappling with the consequences.

Superintendents across Oregon are discussing layoffs, shorter school years - and shorter school weeks. Rob Manning has checked in on some of those districts - including the state’s largest school district, Portland, which presented a new budget last night.

Geoff: Rob joins me this morning. Hi, Rob.

Rob: Good Morning, Geoff.

Geoff: So, the co-chairs proposed spending levels Monday that were based on the May revenue forecast, from a week ago. No one is particularly happy with the state of things. Portland Public Schools is among the first districts in the state to step out and propose a budget since the co-chairs budget came out. What’s in it?

Rob: Just a quick reminder - Portland proposed a budget earlier this year assuming state funding would be at a higher level, and spurred a critical reaction from a Democratic leader in Salem. He called Portland’s initial number “totally unrealistic” - I believe. The new budget is based on the co-chairs’ number, and it has a little of everything to reach $18 million in cuts. That’s on top of $14 million in cuts - even based on that higher number, for a total of about a seven percent cut. So, the 40 position cuts and the wage freezes the superintendent had in the budget before are still there. But Portland superintendent Carole Smith proposes cutting another six central office positions, as well as cutting five days from the school calendar, and spending reserves. The days cut from the calendar actually take away days that were recently added, so it’s maybe not as big of a deal. Portland school board members wouldn’t characterize any of this as “not a big deal,” though, arguing that the state has invested poorly for years, and this year is another step down.

Geoff: And yet, this budget picture could get worse. The economy hasn’t necessarily hit bottom, and the co-chairs are betting on $800 million in new or additional taxes. Did the Portland school district, or are any districts, planning on what might happen if either the economy slows further, or the tax measure doesn’t stick?

Rob: A school board member in Portland raised that question last night, and it’s on the minds of leaders of the Oregon School Boards’ Association. It’s one reason why districts like Portland are keeping a slightly higher reserve than they might otherwise. 

Geoff: And how similar is what Portland is doing to other districts?

Rob: As the biggest district in the state, there are some things Portland can do that other districts can’t. Carole Smith hopes to save three million dollars by restructuring the central administrative structure. A smaller district doesn’t have options like that - but it’s also not cutting as much.

At least among the districts I looked into, they had been planning on smaller numbers to begin with, so they didn’t have as much revising to do.

For instance, Gresham-Barlow - a district about the quarter of Portland’s size - needs to cut $11 million. It’s proposing cutting 114 positions. Take an even smaller district - Pendleton - where there are around three thousand students, and it’s cutting positions - about 19 of them, and they’re proposing cutting ten days from the calendar.

Then a few other places are targeting certain programs - like South Lane, around Cottage Grove - it wants to close community access to their pool and  cut some activities, like cheerleading and water polo.

Geoff: A few months ago, there was talk among some school districts of moving to a four-day school week. It’s already done in a number of smaller districts - is that going to spread?

Rob: It sounds like it will. Redmond sounds the most serious about going to that schedule as one of the primary ways it’s going cut costs. It’s also eliminating positions though. In the election, Tuesday night, Crook County was one of the few school systems in the state with a school tax on the ballot. It failed, and they’re looking at a four-day week, as one possible way to deal with their budget crunch. The shortened week is also on the table in La Grande.

It kind of goes without saying - but I’ll say it anyway - that nearly all the savings that districts are going after is in personnel. Either paying employees less, or having fewer employees to pay, basically. If you’re going to pay workers less, districts need to get the unions to agree - wage freezes, or furlough days, like Portland and other places are doing. So, what the unions want to do is another variable - on top of the economic and political uncertainty, of some of this money.

Geoff: Thanks Rob.

Rob: You’re welcome.

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