The board of directors at Portland Public Schools passed a budget Tuesday night, six to one, with the only no vote from Paul Anthony, one of three directors who’s stepping down after not running for re-election this month. 

Out of a general fund budget approaching $700 million, PPS staff recently gave board members more work to do when they found new funding to reduce the projected deficit by $7 million.

Originally facing a $17 million deficit, in late May PPS staff identified new funding resources, including additional state money for last school year and an increase from the State School Fund for next year.

It was up to the board to figure out where to re-allocate the resources it had. 

The board and district staff worked over the Memorial Day weekend to narrow down budget priorities such as maintenance, dyslexia support and racial equity social justice training.

Staff asked the board to rank 33 budget priorities, and the budget team worked until 3 p.m. Tuesday – three hours before the meeting – to create a spreadsheet incorporating every board member’s rank. 

Most board members agreed on the district’s top five budget priorities, which are all classroom-focused. 

  • Restoring classrooms that would become 4/5 blends
  • Providing equitable opportunities for middle school students in K-8 schools
  • Full-time staff to work on literacy intervention
  • Targeted class size reductions by adding staff
  • Hiring a dyslexia coordinator and providing professional development training to build foundational reading skills

The bulk of the money will go to restoring fourth and fifth grade classrooms to separate classrooms, instead of “blended” classrooms.

“We’re calling out that our community – and I think our board – doesn’t want to see these blends,” said board member Amy Kohnstamm. “We heard loud and clear from our educators that’s not where we should be going right now.” 

The board and staff worked to allocate more full-time employees to prevent class blends. They used funds devoted to maintenance projects and other priorities to pull together the money for teachers.

In the end, only six classrooms will be blended, out of 21 included in the proposed budget. Two classes are already blended and will continue as a school model.

Portland Public School board members listen to public comments during a meeting on May 28, 2019.

Portland Public School board members listen to public comments during a meeting on May 28, 2019.

Elizabeth Miller/OPB

Board members also discussed how best to provide an equitable middle school experience for all PPS students. A PPS analysis of elective opportunities in middle grades found that students at Portland’s K-8 schools have fewer choices than standalone middle schools. 

Two PPS schools only offer one elective, and seven schools offer two: language and art, or language and music.

Board member Julia Brim-Edwards spoke out in favor of more elective offerings for students – even if they attend smaller schools. 

“I’d just like to know how we’re going to make sure that kids have an opportunity to take something that they’re passionate about,” said Brim-Edwards. “Because if they don’t have that opportunity, I think that’s when we start to lose them.”

Also included in the budget is $265,000 for a middle school redesign. District officials will visit other schools around the county that have undergone change. The district intends to draw up a contract with Stanford’s Design Lab to use research and data in planning. 

Anthony voted “no” on the budget because the board did not fund literacy supports he’d submitted as budget priorities.

“We know perfectly well kids aren’t learning to read, kids are getting to high school not being able to master core material because they can’t read,” said Anthony. “We have to address that, that’s what the data says.”

The board met last week for a work session that ended at 2am. Board chair Rita Moore suggested the board vote for the budget by 10 p.m. Tuesday – it took until about 10:30 p.m. for the vote. 

Anthony said in the rush to get the budget passed, he wished for more discussion.

“When it gets so late, people are not very patient and people are not listening well,” said Anthony. 

Members of a community group charged with reviewing the budget were unhappy with the lack of transparency during the budget process.

Community budget review committee member Harmony Quiroz said she found out about the $7 million and the budget priorities list from social media.

“Major shifts in the Superintendent’s proposed budget should include intentional communication and engagement with the community, even when timelines are brief,” said Quiroz. “A reduction in the budget shortfall by $7 million dollars qualifies as a major shift.”

The board also brought up recent racist incidents at several Portland high schools. PPS Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero said funding for leadership and professional development won’t solve the problem, but called it a step in the right direction.

“I think it would be fair to say this represents an installment towards building our capacity to address issues of racial equity,” said Guerrero. “It’s not going to solve them, but it’s going to go a good distance in this coming school year to invest in training our leaders.” 

Other priorities that received funding include plans for a climate justice curriculum, totaling $200,000, and increased funding for contracted equity services in certain PPS schools at $400,000.