By Oscar Ponteri, Franklin High School’s The Franklin Post
Following a projected drop in enrollment, Portland Public Schools (PPS) has outlined a budget plan to cut roughly 107 teachers from district elementary and middle schools, causing backlash across the PPS community.
Since the declaration to cut “student-facing positions” was made in mid-February, the district and educators have each made their case for how to spend the district’s approximately $700 million for the 2022-2023 school year.
The PPS “general fund” operates as the primary fund used for day-to-day operations, covering staff, transportation, materials, supplies and utilities. The fund is combined from local revenue and money from the statewide school fund grant. How much of this money PPS receives depends on enrollment in PPS schools in relation to other districts around the state.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, PPS projected an eight percent decrease in overall enrollment for the 2022-23 school year. These findings clash with estimates made by the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) in February 2022, which suggest that weighted enrollment (a composite in which special needs or at risk students are counted as more than one student) will only decrease by 1.65 percent. Despite projections of fewer students in the district, total funding is expected to increase.
Because there’s a predetermined education allotment from the state and enrollment is down across the state, funding per student is on the rise. According to ODE estimates, PPS will receive $9,376 per weighted student in the 2022-23 school year, up from $9,032 this year.
This will make for a total of $507.6 million, over $2 million more than in the 2021-22 year. In combination with the additional state funding, the 2022-23 general fund balance will see a total increase of $26 million from the 2021-22 year. Regardless of the increase, the district insists that it is not nearly enough to maintain teachers.
PPS projected that their general fund expenses will rise by $44 million going into the following school year. The increase is mostly staffing costs, up $26 million, and transportation costs, up $13 million. At a February PPS Board meeting, the district shared a projection in which, at the current rate of spending and staffing, PPS would be facing a large budget deficit by 2024.
Declining enrollment, in combination with a looming budgetary crisis, has led the district to call for a staffing reconfiguration, eliminating 107 “school-based staff,” 83 of which are classroom teaching positions. 61 educators will be cut from K-5 homerooms, 31 from middle schools and four from overall physical education.
High schools will gain seven teachers and overall arts education will gain five. “If we don’t have the money to pay for [staff], the cuts are going to have to come from somewhere,” says PPS Board Member Eilidh Lowery.
The Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) argues that cutting staff is unnecessary. “Right now, we are not facing a budget deficit. We don’t have to make any cuts at all. So it is incredibly disconnected from the way we talk about schools when we are jumping to make cuts to student services, when we don’t even have a budget cut to necessitate it,” says PAT president Elizabeth Thiel.
Already exhausted educators worry that cutting staff will lead to larger class sizes. “There is nothing that matters more to a teacher’s ability to reach their students than having small class sizes,” says Thiel. “The more you know your students and the fewer [students] you have, the better your ability to actually tailor learning to meet the individual needs of those human beings.”
Teachers aren’t the only ones voicing their displeasure. Five members of Oregon’s legislature and the BIPOC caucus sent a letter to the district leadership sharing “frustration” that “budget cuts were all aimed at direct student contact positions.”
PPS refutes the claims that staffing cuts will lead to a drastic increase in class sizes, citing projections that show nearly 98 percent of all classrooms are staffed below maximum class size thresholds. This data, based on PPS enrollment data rather than that of the ODE, shows the average size of K-3 classes will be 22 students in the 2022-23 year.
At the center of the funding debate is Portland’s historically underserved students of color. Testing conducted in fall of 2021 and published in The Oregonian showed that black fourth graders were a year behind in reading and two and a half years behind on math.
Lowery believes that targeted interventions, such as summer school, reading specialists, extra mental health workers and tutors, are the ways to help underserved students. “We are making choices about investing in our black and native students, which means we will be cutting classroom teachers.”
Staffing allocations are the first step in a lengthy process to finalize a district-wide budget. In “phase two,” Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero will propose a finalized budget, to be approved by the board in June.