By Midge Pierce

The expectation that dozens of teaching positions will be eliminated next year despite the Portland Public School (PPS) Superintendent’s proposed four percent budget increase, will likely motivate a strong showing for The Day of Action, May 8. The event will close the schools as educators press for critical funding boosts.

Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero’s so-called “cuts” budget presentation came on the heels of a March letter warning parents of fiscal deficiencies and staff rollbacks.

While next year’s budget is actually an increase of $32 million, it is absorbed by higher healthcare and salary costs plus a twenty percent increase in retirement payouts that eat spending increases.

A proposed $2 billion statewide funding infusion for the next biennium will not alter 2019-20 budgets.

Announcing next year’s budget, Guerrero called for racial equality and more targeted support for students facing academic and behavioral problems. Shifting priorities may mean that overcrowded classrooms take a backseat to intervening for at-risk students.

The impact varies from school to school and struggling schools with vulnerable students may see higher staff levels.

In SE, one elementary school that faces teacher cuts expects class sizes upwards of thirty-five students. Other schools are considering merging 4th, 5th and 6th grades.

For schools with a number of behavioral needs students, special assistants and additional staff training may become available.

Family insecurity, homelessness, addictions, and foster care issues are growing dilemmas. They add to other severe PPS challenges from construction cost overruns (notably Benson High) to abysmal test scores and graduation rates.

Deferred maintenance and security breaches have left at least one SE school with backdoors that do not secure properly and front doors with no line of sight from administrative offices monitoring visitors. Buzzers and security cameras are either non-existent or non-functioning.

The Day of Action is the latest in a series of rallies to urge legislators to support the Student Success Act, House Bill 2019, to add $2 billion to K-12 education. Events draw attention to a financial crisis many trace back to the state’s inability to solve the Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) fund that faces a $27 billion shortfall.

A strong May 8 turnout may get the Bill over the finish line, but Oregon Education Association President John Larson told The Southeast Examiner it is not enough.

“Oregon has some of the most crowded classrooms in the nation,” he said. We rank thirty-first in per pupil spending. Even if it’s the biggest increase in my career, it doesn’t make up for thirty years of disinvestment. We need to do what’s right for the kids.”

Larson says that in his twenty-nine years of teaching, commitment to school funding has fallen every year. “We’ve disenfranchised three generations of students.”

Portland Education Association President Suzanne Cohen added that the Superintendent should not have to choose between tough problems like classroom size and at-risk student needs.

“Both should be addressed with sufficient funding,” she said and maintained there is a correlation between lack of monies, Oregon’s low corporate taxes and graduation rates that have ranked Oregon 49th in the nation.

Even with a slight, heartening two percent graduation increase at PPS, notably among low and minority students, the district is still woefully below the national graduation average.

Savvy employers recognize that low graduation rates and poor educational preparation make it hard to find qualified workers, creating situations that impact bottom lines. Ultimately, the failure to sufficiently fund education hurts the state’s economic health.

This reality is a strong argument for legislators and employers to support legislation that would increase taxes on large corporations. Some local companies seem supportive. Uphill battles may come from out-of-state-owned corporations less vested in Oregon schools.

In the long-term, few easy solutions surface. All ideas are welcome, says Larson.

A retired middle school math teacher broached the idea of filing a class action suit against the large financial institutions that profited from pension investments even as returns fell well short of expectations during the downturn.

“Go after the banks. Make them pay off the huge losses they brought on our community.”

An official confirms the inevitable. Oregonians will be asked to pony up more educational funding, most likely through bonds, in the future.