Slow Change For Portland Public Schools 1 Year After State Audit

By Elizabeth Miller (OPB)
Portland, Ore. Feb. 26, 2020 5:44 p.m.

Last January, Portland Public Schools board members spoke out in defense of the district ahead of a scathing audit from the Oregon secretary of state's office.


"I'm concerned that there's a capturing of a moment in time that was two years ago and does not reflect that we have made really significant progress and work is ongoing," board member Julia Brim-Edwards said at the time.

Board members and district officials said the audit highlighted old problems that were being fixed.

But more than a year after the audit, PPS has fully implemented only two of 15 recommendations from the secretary of state's office.

The audit on the Oregon Department of Education and Portland Public Schools found inconsistent monitoring of funds spent at both the state and district level, and recommended PPS be more transparent with its budget. Additionally, the report said PPS does not adequately serve its students of color and economically disadvantaged students.

While the January report fulfilled a campaign promise by the late Secretary Dennis Richardson, it also highlighted longstanding problems within ODE and PPS.

One year after the report, are those problems closer to being resolved?

Portland Public Schools

Oregon’s largest school district was the first in the state to be audited by the secretary of state's office.

In its written response to the auditing team, PPS said many of the recommendations referred to problems that were already being fixed.

“Many reforms are already underway and significant systems and operational practices are being developed using the principles of continuous process improvement,” reads a line in the response.

PPS deputy superintendent Claire Hertz helped put together the district’s response, which included target dates to complete each recommendation’s “implementation activities."

Almost every target date was set for 2019 — most of them to be completed last summer.

But of the 15 recommendations for PPS, only two are marked “completed." They relate to policies on credit card use and managing contracts.

Related: Oregon Graduation Rates Hit 80%, An All-Time High. Here’s The Story In 6 Districts.

Most of the other recommendation implementations are a little more complex — and unfinished. On a scorecard keeping track of progress on the recommendations, almost everything is marked “on target."

The audit notes that target dates are “generally expected within six months” of an audit. But Hertz said this week that change takes time with 81 schools and more than 8,500 employees.

“Sometimes systems that are across many … thousands of individuals that will access that system, it takes longer than a six-month period,” Hertz said.


A couple of recommendations are marked as “behind schedule” to be implemented — including a report on potential savings in transportation costs, an updated student conduct policy, as well efforts to monitor student progress through coaching and a data tracking tool.

The district said in its audit response that the data tracking tool is designed as a “four-year roll out of coaching and supports to all schools in the district.”

Hertz and Brim-Edwards say the audit doesn’t tell the whole story of the district’s changes over the last few years.

Hertz points to the district's vision and upcoming strategic plan as more accurate depictions of the "system shifts" happening at PPS. Published last year, the school's vision presents an ideal of where the district wants to be in terms of students, staff and the district as a whole.

“I think that’s a more systemic way of making this change,” Hertz said. “It’s not from an audit from the secretary of state.”

But Brim-Edwards said the audit is worth having.

“It’s fundamental to improving how we do our work so that we can better serve students and stretch taxpayers’ dollars,” Brim-Edwards said.

Audits of the school district also provide a level of transparency that Brim-Edwards hopes will build trust when PPS asks voters for support.

“They’ll have confidence that when we either ask for resources for local options or bonds that they know that PPS has ongoing systems in place and controls,” Brim-Edwards said.

Oregon Department of Education

The secretary of state’s audit suggested ODE provide oversight and support districts in the state. Within the agency itself, the audit recommended an analysis of ODE’s current staff.

Unlike PPS, ODE seemed to be more realistic in its target dates in its audit response. Most of the dates are after the six months where recommendations are “generally expected” to be implemented.

As a result, ODE said four recommendations set to be implemented by the end of 2019 have been completed.

One that was set to be completed by December requires “ongoing implementation.”

For that recommendation — a public evaluation of ODE’s interventions for districts that do not support high-poverty schools — ODE points to a new office of Education, Innovation, and Improvement, and the "needs assessment" process every district must go through.

There are several more recommendations ODE has yet to implement, including grant oversight measures and a plan to make sure the state can hold districts accountable for adhering to state standards.

Oregon’s Education Auditing Future

The secretary of state’s office is likely to issue a follow-up report to the audit later this year.

Meantime, PPS has hired two internal auditors. Their first report, on contracts, should be completed this spring. The auditors will also explore the district’s finances and review purchasing card history.

In addition, the district commissioned an audit of PPS' 2017 bond. That report, released in early 2019, found cost estimates provided to the public were $100 million less than professional construction estimates circulated internally. The district continues to implement recommendations from that report.

The secretary of state's office intends to continue its examination of the state's education institutions, with plans to audit the state's implementation of the Student Success Act, passed by legislators last year.

The audit will focus on the Oregon Department of Education and selected school districts.