Pandemic triggers budget cuts at Portland Public Schools

Education

Unclear where the $12 million in reductions will be made, but the amount is equivalent to 120 teachers

Grant High School is nearly done with renovations just in time for the first day of school on Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019. (KOIN)

PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — Portland Public Schools is facing about $12 million in cuts for the 2020-21 school year, which could prompt staff layoffs or other big cost-cutting moves.

Oregon’s economy, devastated by the business and social shutdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic, will provide less tax money to school districts across the state. About 80% of most school districts’ budgets is staff costs, so there are not many places for schools to save money without cutting staff.

But where the cuts will be made was unclear at the Tuesday, May 26, school board meeting and at least one school board member asked about the specifics.

“We’re facing a budget with $12 million of unspecified cuts. When will we see what the specific cuts are?” Director Julia Brim-Edwards asked.

PPS administrators assured Brim-Edwards that proposed cuts would be revealed before a budget town hall and adoption the week of June 9.

There are a lot of moving parts to school budgets and this year is especially difficult. Forecasts are uncertain and changing due to the unpredictable economy resulting from the pandemic. But PPS and all other school districts have to submit budgets to the state by June 30. Districts are expecting more clarity about funding in a special session of the Legislature, which has not yet been set.

Citing “constrained realities,” Guadalupe Guerrero, PPS superintendent, said in budget documents prepared for the 2020-21 school year, “We know that PPS faces significant shortfalls as a result of the economic fall out of the pandemic.” Guerrero said “we needed to make reductions in order to balance our budget.”

PPS has multiple sources of funding and most will take a hit due to the slumping economy. The allotment from state school funding is estimated to be $40 million less, or a reduction of about 7.7% from what was expected. Funding for programs under a voter-approved initiative called Measure 98 will also be less than expected by about 35% or $4.1 million. Measure 98 was designed to keep kids in school, provide career and technical education and provide college-level courses.

Portland and other districts will also see less from the new Student Success Act funding from the Corporate Activities Tax. PPS will get 37% or $13.65 million less than had been estimated in this first year of the tax. School districts were directed to use this money to hire more teachers and counselors to improve achievement and boost graduation rates.

The May 20 state economic forecast predicted state revenues will be $2.7 billion less than had been expected for the 2019-21 biennium, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That shortfall directly impacts money for schools.

Every $10 million chunk of the PPS budget is equivalent to about 100 teaching jobs, so a $12 million shortfall is about equal to 120 teaching jobs.

The state’s largest school district, with 82 schools, employs about 3,700 teachers, about 2,100 “classified” staff, which includes educational assistants, secretaries and other workers and 175 licensed administrators.

Anticipating continued bad economic news, PPS had already furloughed staff every Friday from May to the end of July, saving about $10 million to be pushed ahead to the 2020-21 school year to ease the crunch. Staff will be paid for the missing day through Oregon’s Work Share program and students get distance learning only four days per week.

The district has also made other cuts including freezing purchases, banning travel and instituting a hiring freeze which should save about $8.9 million. The district is also expecting its share of the federal coronaviris relief fund known as the CARES Act to add about $8.9 million to the coffers.

The board is scheduled to adopt the final budget Tuesday, June 23. The budget was presented in the context of a lengthy strategic plan dubbed “PPS reImagined,” designed to improve the education of all students, especially those who have traditionally been underserved, including black and Native American students.

“It is now past time to ensure that this promise is fully and readily available to all students, including and especially those who have been most affected by generations-long, systemic inequity,” according to the plan.

The document lays out ways the district will carry out “our relentless pursuit of racial equity and social justice.”

The Portland Tribune is a KOIN 6 News media partner

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