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Learning With Less: How The 'Domino Effect' Helped One Teacher

OPB has been tracking the effect of budget cuts on classrooms across the state over this school year. But for weeks now, school advocates have been turning attention toward next year’s budget. Rob Manning recaps the budget situations in some area districts — and catches up with a teacher we’ve been following for the last year.

If there’s one indication that there’s tension around school budgets, look no further than the picket lines along Main Street in Gresham, Wednesday.

Ultimately, a deal in the Gresham-Barlow School District avoided laying off teachers, though further details won’t be known for awhile.

A year ago, Oregon school boards laid off hundreds of teachers. One of them was Lon Morast, a teacher in the health department at David Douglas High School.

Lon Morast

Rob Manning / OPB

“My hope was I was going to be OK, but knowing deep down, I thought I was probably going to be one of those people they were going to have to lay off,” Morast said.

Morast was especially worried about losing his health insurance, because his wife was pregnant at the time. He got lucky, and the district recalled him to teach PE at two district middle schools. He benefited from a domino effect that can involve retirements and replacements.

“My understanding, there was a swim teacher from the high school that took a two-year sabbatical, which moved another teacher in our district was able to take that position, which moved me into this position, teaching half-time here, and half-time at Ron Russell.”

Rob Manning / OPB
The Portland Public Schools board meeting was crowded April 23rd.

Ron Russell and Floyd Light are two middle schools — not the high school level Morast was used to, and he’d be teaching PE, not health.

Morast has been worrying all year about what budget cuts might come this spring. More on that in a minute.

School boards are entering the second year of a limited state allocation. It makes district discussions every bit as rough as last spring’s.

Beaverton superintendent Jeff Rose explained, “Beaverton is not the only school district with this conversation relative to budget challenges and reductions. It is common in this state and in this nation, specific to schools.”

Rose pointed out how many teachers and support staff the district would lose:

“334 employees. Excuse me, 344. It’s dramatic,” he said.

Rob Manning / OPB
LeeAnn Montgomery, left, is a student at Young Women’s Leadership Academy.

Portland’s superintendent Carole Smith announced the district had to cut 110 teachers and close two schools. The decision to close the Young Women’s Leadership Academy outraged students like 7th grader, LeeAnn Montgomery.

Montgomery said, “They shouldn’t have closed down our school because it’s the only public school that actually will give girls a chance to be in an all-girl school, and not have to pay any money. At the same time, this teaches us the STEM programs – science, technology, engineering and math - and it introduces girls to so many different things.”

The budget conflict has also enflamed tensions between school boards and unionized teachers – and not just in Gresham.

In Portland, administrators and some parents pressed the union to accept unpaid furlough days to save teaching jobs.

Earlier this week, union leaders pushed back, arguing that Portland Public should first cut more administrative jobs. They had the support of state representative Tina Kotek.

Kotek said, “I think the public is looking for assurances that you have looked under every rock to get through the central office and say ‘we are prioritizing the classroom first.’”

Portland school board member Greg Belisle had his own advice for Tina Kotek, and the rest of the Oregon legislature.

Belisle said, “Representative Kotek actually made a comment, she said ‘when we were looking at the budget for the biennium, we chose stability.’ They chose ‘stability,’ rather than adequate funding. I would love to change that.”

A snapshot of the budget picture this spring doesn’t give a complete sense of where schools stand. For instance, Beaverton and Salem-Keizer are very close in size. But Beaverton plans to cut 344 jobs to cover a $37 million gap. Salem’s gap is far smaller, mostly because it cut hundreds of jobs a year ago.

Rob Manning / OPB
Lon Morast

In the David Douglas School District, Lon Morast’s job was was one of 79 teacher cuts a year ago. This year David Douglas plans to cut another 23 teachers. Two weeks ago, Morast was nervously waiting to hear from his principal, to find out if he’d still have his new job, teaching middle school PE. Notice was supposed to go out by two.

“It was 2 o’clock, and I hadn’t been called in. So I was pretty excited. I texted my wife and said ‘I think I might have a job.’ About 2 o’clock, and the principal called, called my name, and it was a long walk to the office. But he said, ‘Hey, I’m just checking in — I think you have a job.’”

Turns out Morast will be teaching PE, but he doesn’t know where. The domino effect of shifting teachers around is playing out a little slowly for him.

Students don’t like the uncertainty any more than teachers do.

Rob Manning / OPB
A student named “Jake” recently addressed the Portland school board.

Eight-year-old Jake testified at a recent Portland budget hearing, lamenting the loss of his PE teacher — and the replacement.

“Our last PE teacher, it was way better than this year’s PE teacher. This year’s PE teacher says that we still need to learn how to play dodgeball, and we have to play like kindergarten-grade activities,” Jake complained.

School boards will soon finalize their budgets for next school year, but pink slips are already going out. Teachers who are laid off can put their names on “recall” lists. That’s how Lon Morast wound up with his current job.

Find more education stories in Rob’s Learning with Less series here.

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