By Daniel Perez-Crouse
The month of May saw much activity over the proposed Portland Public Schools (PPS) 2022-2023 budget of $1.87 billion, involving its introduction, work sessions and input from faculty and local communities.
The slogan attached to the budget is, “Out of challenging times, we move forward together.” The challenging times being a proliferation of Portland’s issues with COVID-19, violence, mental health and the well-known struggles faced by schools as a result. But the future may hold additional challenges based on some of the budget’s strategies.
One of the main challenges outlined is the PPS General Fund (which primarily funds all PPS operations), is estimated to receive $704 million – whereas the projected costs will be $744 million. The primary driver of excessive costs are salary and benefits for faculty and staff.
There’s also the issue of a projected 3,400 decrease in students next year. For reasons that were are not parsed out as of yet, the highest decrease was shown to be in elementary schools.
This led to proposing the Board of Education use $40 million dollars from reserves to close the shortfall. This would potentially decrease their 11 percent annual General Fund revenue to six percent (going from $91 million to $51 million).
The report states that, “Although we are able to keep pace with expenditures because of our one-time revenue, this is not a sustainable strategy and will need to be addressed as one-time monies go away.” This caused a slight stir during the April 26 reveal meeting.
The fear, noted by some Board members, is the lack of a clear, defined plan to build those funds back up – especially since such a large amount would be spent. Vice Chair on the Board of Education, Andrew Scott, mused that maybe “magic fairy money” might come from nowhere to alleviate this stress, but the hope of what “might happen” can’t be counted on as a Board.
Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero anticipated this concern and is looking for creative solutions going forward, while acknowledging the reality that, “we can spend a little more now, but it’ll hurt a little more later.”
Scott delved into a few more specifics in a May 10 meeting. He said relying on one-time funds now means lessening the need for faculty and staff cuts. But if there’s not an increase in enrollment or new funds to help supplement the revenue issue, cuts could happen later in more severe fashion.
As for the specifics of the plan, $118 million of targeted state and one-time federal funds will prioritize five areas: address unfinished learning as a result of the pandemic, increase learning opportunities, make meaningful progress on our community’s top priorities, provide high-quality emotional/mental health and create more time for professional educators to plan and prepare.
Part of the “address unfinished learning as a result of the pandemic” area is what the proposal touts as the “largest summer programming in PPS History.” This includes things like an arts academy, math program, early kindergarten transition and more.
Another major initiation is lower class sizes. Amidst the May 17 work session, the nuances around that issue were debated. Questions of acceptable class size, which schools and specific classes should have reduced sizes and supporting classes that cannot and may not need to be reduced arose.
Testimony from staff, faculty and more was given at various work sessions. One teacher, Franki Dennison, said, “I worry a lot about the disconnect between what you (the Board) bring to the table, which is clearly rich and caring and understanding in your own individual perspective, and what I see missing is collaboration. There is so much that happens at each individual school that we cannot describe to you in two minutes, two hours or two days.”
Many of the testimonials called attention to a “crisis” in the custodial and nutritional departments – citing non-competitive wages, severe understaffing and an overburdening of the current staff. Greg Meyers, head custodian for PPS, said this issue hasn’t been isolated to the pandemic, that it’s a struggle to fight for funds every year. Related is concerns around the cleanliness of schools as a result of this issue.
Among others, there were concerns over cuts to special education, a desire for more teachers (many people brandishing blue, miniature signs calling for just that) and hopes for higher wages.
It’s also worth noting the May 17 work session revealed (after additional financial calculations) an extra $9 million available to use in the budget. Board member Herman Greene jokingly harkened back to the “magic” funds coming from nowhere Scott mentioned. “I had faith,” he said.
A meeting to approve the budget proposal was scheduled for May 24 with the final adoption on June 14.
There is plenty of nuance, detail and other narratives surrounding this issue that can be seen in the published Board of Education meetings at youtube.com/user/ppscomms and in the densely detailed budget development process documents at pps.net/Page/1403.