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Portland Budget Targets Cuts At High Schools, Invests In Maintenance

Interim Superintendent Bob McKean has seen his share of red ink years in budgets past as the superintendent of East Portland’s Centennial School District.

And he said Tuesday that he’s seen worse than the 2017-18 budget for Portland Public Schools.

“No cuts are good. This is the best we can do with the money we have,” said McKean at a Tuesday afternoon briefing. “It certainly isn’t as dire as it was in the early 2010-2012 era, when it was very dire and very bleak, but this is not a good thing.”

Portland Public Schools’ budget proposes a net loss of almost 134 positions, which may not sound like a lot, considering the state’s largest district has more than 6,000 employees.

But the cuts won’t fall evenly across the Portland’s 76 school buildings and multiple departments. Most of the lost jobs would be inside schools, particularly Portland’s 10 high schools.

According to a summary provided to reporters and shared with the Portland school board Tuesday, 47 of the nearly 83 teaching positions being cut are coming out of high schools. Portland’s chief finance officer, Yusuf Awwad, said there is money in the budget to add some positions at schools hit particularly hard.

The cuts to high schools are expected to increase average class sizes by about two students. But McKean and Awwad defend those cuts in part by saying Portland high schools would still have smaller average class sizes than other large high schools in Oregon.

Revenue is up about 2 percent in Portland’s $616.3 million dollar budget. But projected costs are up even more — close to 6 percent.

McKean said the budget hole starts at $18 million, but grows when factoring in the costs of renewed contracts, particularly with the Portland Association of Teachers. 

“We’re adding $5 million, because we’re in the process of negotiating with our unions, so in essence, our deficit is $23 million,” McKean said.

The PPS superintendent said the budget already assumes a 3 percent Cost Of Living Adjustment for all employees. The $5 million set aside for bargaining would be in addition to that.

The budget proposal would also cut millions from the central office by slashing dozens of positions, eliminating contracts, and closing vacant positions, among other cost-saving measures. But the net change to centralized positions doesn’t look as deep because of targeted additions.

McKean’s budget found cuts beyond the $23 million necessary to balance the budget, but much of the money is re-invested into three priorities: equity, learning and student health and safety.

Portland has been reeling from controversy over its handling of the discovery of lead in school drinking water and other problems related to the district’s aging school buildings. McKean’s budget would invest $5.3 million in hiring custodial and maintenance staff, including 12 workers dedicated to Portland’s new buildings.

The proposed budget is based on a state funding figure for public schools of $8.1 billion. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown proposed $8.02 billion, and the legislative leaders have proposed spending less than that on K-12 education.

Portland’s budget summary outlines how it might spend additional revenue if the state budget comes in above $8.1 billion.

There’s not a plan if revenue comes in lower.

“It’ll be further cuts, we’ll really have to go back to the drawing board and make further cuts,” said Awwad. “It’ll be really difficult.” 

The district has a bit of a buffer. The proposed budget includes $24.9 million contingency, in part to absorb uncertainties of funding. 

Portland’s budget schedule is similar to other Oregon districts. There are hearings scheduled for the next few weeks and the school board plans to approve a budget May 23.

But the final plan may be based on some degree of speculation, as Oregon school leaders don’t expect an approved state budget from Salem until July.

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