Analysis: Portland Public Schools’ communications team costs as much as a school

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PORTLAND, Ore. (The Portland Tribune) — While Portland Public Schools has warned of dwindling funding and shrinking budgets, a central office department has grown noticeably over the past year.

PPS has rebuilt its communications department with a budget that rivals similar-sized school districts in Oregon, and costs nearly as much or more than the district spends on some of its schools.

Freddie Mack, Portland Public Schools Information senior director of communications, talks before a press conference at PPS headquarters (PMG Photo: Jaime Valdez)

As the team was hiring to replace staffers who left between 2020 and 2021, the district’s finance department was trying to balance its budget with potential cuts to teaching jobs. With recent enrollment declines, fewer teachers were needed, staff said.

The district ended up dipping into its reserve funds to avoid layoffs, but earlier this week, PPS announced a hiring freeze in its central office and signaled job cuts could be on the horizon.

The state’s largest district began ramping up hiring for the central office department last spring, after bringing on Communications Director Freddie Mack earlier that year. Mack now has a team of nine, with a budget for up to 13 people. For comparison, that’s the number of classroom teachers at Vestal Elementary School and half the teaching staff of Beaumont Middle School.

Mack said he needed to rebuild the team, to keep up with the district’s needs and the public’s expectations, but some question whether the district is overspending on its central office and under-spending on schools.

“Our team, currently comprised of nine full-time employees, is organized to meet the demands of our community,” Mack said.

Comms team

The clean-cut, sharp-dressed flack has a voice that commands attention and a department that’s on par with the teaching staff at some schools.

With a budget of $2.3 million, $1.8 million of which is allocated for personnel, PPS has the largest communications team budget among the state’s top three districts. In fact, it’s more than double what the second and third largest school districts spend.

Salem-Keizer Public Schools reported a budget of $1.08 million for its 10-person communications department this year. Beaverton School District, the state’s third largest, has a budget of $1.06 million for eight staffers.

PPS has faced scrutiny in the past for its administrative spending. A 2019 audit of PPS from the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office suggested the district identify ways to “redirect dollars to the classroom” noting rising spending on administrative salaries, benefits and substitute teacher costs that were outpacing other districts. A follow-up report in 2021 noted PPS “reduced costs in several of those areas,” but the central office spending in the face of increasing class sizes at some schools hasn’t gone unnoticed.

Angela Bonilla, president of the Portland Association of Teachers, said the union tracked increased spending on salaries for administrative staff.

“We did an information request last year. We asked for how many positions in the central office are over $110,000 in salary,” Bonilla said during an interview in fall 2022. “We have seen an increase of almost 44% in those positions.”

Bonilla said that 44% jump in six-figure pay is since 2017.

“Our concern is the fact that you have this communications department. I understand you need to communicate with parents more, especially as COVID cases rise, but I also know you need to be pushing resources down to schools instead of up to central office,” Bonilla said.

Angela Bonilla, president of the Portland Association of Teachers (PMG Photo: Jaime Valdez)

Mack is a retired Army lieutenant colonel who came to PPS after working in public affairs for the Pentagon and other federal agencies, said his department wasn’t given extra funding or positions. Despite perceptions, Mack said, the department is right-sized for a district with 81 schools.

Late last year, the department brought on an executive speech writer and social media specialist. The team also includes a public records specialist, media liaison, language access specialist and a videographer for streaming public meetings, among other staff.

Mack said it’s important to consider the amount of requests for information the district gets, and the public’s ever-growing expectation of communication and transparency. When there’s an emergency at a school — a fire or some other safety issue — principals are busy and need help getting information out to families quickly. Families also expect social media to keep them informed of school events and news.

He noted the PPS communications team has a workload that far exceeds Beaverton’s or Salem’s.

“We produce more than 30 weekly communications to our staff and community, respond to more than 30 media inquiries monthly, respond to nearly 20 public records requests, communicate to more than 50,000 followers on social media, and process more than 100 translation and interpretation requests every month,” Mack said. “PPS’ organizational chart for communications is ‘right sized,’ and commensurate with the demands of our district.”

Still, long-simmering tension between the Portland school district and its teachers union has educators skeptical of the district’s priorities.

The communications department’s $2.3 million budget is close to the $2.5 million it costs to run Creston Elementary School, and more than it costs to run the Odyssey Program focus-option school.

The salary range for most of the communications team staff is $78,000 to $97,000. The salary for a teacher in PPS with eight years of experience ranges from $65,360 to $85,000, depending on degree and credentials.

Gearing up for fight?

Bonilla, the teachers union leader, suspects some of the push to beef up the communications and publicity team was in preparation for upcoming negotiations between the union and district. In recent years, the union has been vocal about its push for better teacher pay and smaller class sizes.

She points to a union request for student flex time that culminated in PPS issuing a statement saying teachers wanted 20 extra days off.

“That is where the district is taking its communications, they’re attacking their workers,” Bonilla said, likening it to “the district’s attempt to wage a war on the union.

“Who wants to work at a district where their boss is going to talk crap about them?”

Mack adamantly denied that there’s been any priority or effort to besmirch the union.

Jonathan Garcia, the district’s chief of staff, also said that’s not the reason for the robust communications team.

“There has not been additional FTE handed to the department,” Garcia clarified. “I think … for the first time, we have a full deck of staff, so every vacant position under Freddie’s leadership has been filled. I think when Freddie came in, part of it was to look under the hood and say, ‘What are the positions that we have and therefore, there was an all-out recruitment.’”

The all-out recruitment has helped fill out the communications team to about nine people, with hiring continuing as of late January, but PPS has struggled to fill other positions, particularly in special education. Halfway through the school year, the district had 41 open positions for special education staff. Most of the posted jobs in January were for para educators. The vacancies are due in-part to working conditions and what some staff previously said was low pay.

Now, PPS offers para educators a $3,000 retention bonus and pays up to $25.50 an hour.