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PPS sends Outdoor School cash packing

Donors gave $15,000 to restore days; district says gap still too large
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Bhakishop Yoga Center teacher Jessica Garay (front) leads a class at the center that donated a portion of its class proceeds in August to restore days to Portland's Outdoor School.

Despite the best efforts of thousands of Outdoor School supporters, alumni and community members this summer, Portland Public Schools will not restore the popular program from three days to six days this fall.

A dizzying array of grassroots fundraising efforts during the past two months have raked in more than $40,000, but there's still a gap in funding for PPS to be able to send every sixth-grader to Outdoor School for six days this fall.

The board had chopped it from six to three days this spring to save $625,000 from the budget.

Now, with the new pot of fundraising dollars and expected revenue from other sources, the program has a $54,000 gap, according to Kim Silva, executive director of the nonprofit Friends of Outdoor School.

'I am confident that sending your students to Outdoor School for a whole week is within your capacity,' she wrote in a July 27 memo to PPS board members and leaders.

PPS leaders haven't confirmed the size of the gap, saying they're still sorting it out.

'We are in discussions with (the Multnomah Education Service District) about the cost differential between the revenue we have budgeted, the cost the ESD charges for the three-day and the six-day programs, and the additional revenues generated through Friends of Outdoor School,' Zeke Smith, chief of staff to Superintendent Carole Smith, told the Tribune.

Smith estimates the gap in funds to be about $435,000, far more than the $54,000 gap estimated by the Friends of Outdoor School.

'We remain committed to funding the three-day program and are interested in the full six-day program, if the revenue is available to make up the differential in cost,' he said. 'At this time, given the full cost of the six-day program and our staffing and transportation costs, we do not feel we are in a position to make up this gap.'

Silva says that's disappointing, especially since $15,000 of the $40,000 raised was specifically designated for PPS to add back days. Donors said they didn't just want to write a blank check to Outdoor School, because the five-year PPS operating levy recently approved by voters guarantees three days of the school for all sixth-graders.

'I have donors who specially said if PPS doesn't add days, I don't want to make a donation,' she says. 'I now have to give donations back, and I'm not thrilled about that; I'm not looking forward to these conversations one bit.'

Silva thinks the district is 'making a mistake that I hope we can overcome with the donors and the general community.'

Smith said the district appreciated the fundraising efforts, but the budget gap is just too large to overcome.

'$15,000 is a long way off from $435,000,' he says.

Still hopeful

Since 1966, Outdoor School has been a rite of passage for students in many Oregon school districts, having sent 300,000 students through the environmental education program.

Portland sends about half of the participants each year: 900 high school student leaders and 3,700 sixth-graders. Other districts in the city have been forced to eliminate their programs during the past three years.

Outdoor School supporters in the David Douglas and Corbett districts would receive some of the $40,000 raised this summer to restore their programs because they've been actively involved in the efforts, Silva says.

Students, parents, teachers and other supporters have held dozens of fundraising events throughout the summer, including a run-a-thon, car wash and an Outdoor School-style 'campfire.' They've hosted information booths at street fairs and festivals, and formed partnerships with Burgerville and and a Southeast Portland yoga studio from which they received a portion of their proceeds.

The events will continue, and a separate effort is under way to secure long-term funding for Outdoor School for all of Portland's districts.

'I'm still really hopeful; it's not the end of Outdoor School - we just have to move forward,' says Kristen Klever, a former Outdoor School staff member who organized the 'PDX Loves Outdoor School' website (pdxods.org) in June to collect people's favorite memories about their experiences.

Klever says she sees her role as tapping into people's memories to garner their support, until they reach a critical mass of donors.

'I really want to show people it's not just a science program, a little camp, a little field trip,' she says. 'It's connected to all of us socially - how we think about our region, how we're all connected to each other. It changes people. You can't say that about any old thing.'

When it comes to the kids, she says, sixth-graders are much more blasé.

'Kids are used to getting stuff cut from their school,' she says. 'When we talk to them about it getting cut, they're like, 'Yeah, I know, of course.' '

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