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Schools prepare for a big squeeze

State shortfall may mean larger classes and fewer teachers

Larger class sizes. Fewer teachers.

And local school districts that won't be giving Portland's children the education they deserve.

That's the warning from Portland school officials and education advocates as they consider possible cuts of hundreds of millions of dollars next year for elementary and secondary schools.

State legislators are considering such cuts because of a predicted $830 million shortfall in the state's budget for next year Ñ a shortfall legislators will grapple with in a special session, possibly next month.

Some warnings from local education officials undoubtedly represent a chunk of public lobbying; school officials know their warnings might persuade skittish legislators to make any education cuts smaller rather than bigger.

Still, there's little doubt that the possible cuts to the state K-12 education budget Ñ anywhere from $100 million to the $300 million in a no-new-taxes plan Gov. John Kitzhaber released earlier this week Ñ will significantly affect schools. And probably mean teacher layoffs.

'Personnel costs Ñ in our district, it's 83 percent,' said Barbara Rommel, superintendent of the 8,300-student David Douglas school district in east Portland. 'You just can't make that level of cut by cutting paper and maintenance and those kinds of things. You have to cut people.'

Based on percentage of budgets potentially cut, smaller Portland districts like David Douglas and Parkrose will feel the pinch as much as any district.

But based on total numbers Ñ of dollars and teaching positions potentially cut Ñ Portland Public Schools could lead the state.

Portland's 54,000-student district has about 10 percent of the state's students and therefore gets about 10 percent of the state's school money. So a $200 million cut in state education funds means a $20 million cut to the Portland district.

And any state cut will come on top of a shortfall of $8.5 million to $19 million that Portland district officials already have projected for next year's budget.

So the total budget cut for the Portland district could range from $19 million to $49 million Ñ or 5 percent to 13 percent of an expected $382 million general fund budget.

'We have a $50-million problem,' interim Superintendent Jim Scherzinger said. 'We believe that that's mission-threatening at that level.'

Scherzinger will highlight a range of possible cuts in a presentation to the Portland school board on Monday night. Suggested cuts likely to be part of the presentation include:

Teacher cuts

Almost 85 percent of the Portland district's budget goes to salaries and benefits. So any significant cut quickly will affect employees, especially teachers.

About 3,600 of the district's 6,000 employees are teachers. The 2,400 others include teachers' assistants, school staff and central office administrators.

The average class size throughout Portland schools is about 25 students per teacher. Raising the student-to-teacher ratio by one student per teacher would cut about 56 teaching positions and save the district about $2.7 million per year. Raising the ratio by two students would cut about 120 teaching positions and save about $5.4 million, and by three students would cut about 170 teachers and save about $8 million.

Those cuts would not necessarily mean layoffs: 200 to 300 teachers retire or resign in an average year. But it would bring even larger class sizes Ñ a year after the district raised the student-to-teacher ratio by about one student per teacher and two years after Portland district voters approved a tax increase to decrease class sizes.

A shorter school year

Shortening the Portland district's roughly 190-day school year by one day saves the district about $1.6 million in salary costs.

But the state education department sets a minimum number of hours any district is supposed to hold classes.

And any change in the number of school days would have to be negotiated as part of the teachers' union contract Ñ because one less day of salary is a .5 percent salary decrease.

Negotiations on a new multiyear teachers' union contract are set to begin this spring. School board members have suggested that shortening the school year is probably only a remote possibility. And Richard Garrett, president of the Portland Association of Teachers, suggested it was less than remote.

Cutting two days off the year, for instance, would mean that 'basically a beginning teacher would be giving the district $300 to help the district solve its problem,' Garrett said. 'We're not going to do that.'

Health benefits cuts

The projections for next year's school district spending Ñ assuming no employee cuts and assuming all current services would continue Ñ are about $16 million more than the current year's spending.

More than $7 million of that increase comes from expected increases in health-care costs for district employees.

District employees' health benefits cost about $38 million this year. They're expected to cost about $45 million next year.

While health care costs are increasing for employers across the country, district watchers in private industry consider the benefits for Portland Public Schools employees to be unusually generous. Full-time district employees, for example, are not required to pay any part of the health-insurance premium.

Any changes in the package for teachers also would need to be negotiated as part of contract negotiations. But Tony Larson, head of the citizens committee that makes recommendations on the district's budget, said management and labor 'have to get together and say, 'You know, this is intolerable. É The thing that's going to be cut in order to pay for that (health) package are union members.'

Said Karla Wenzel, vice chairwoman of the school board: 'We would be foolish not to be looking at our fastest-rising costs Ñ which are our health care costs.'

Garrett said union officials have yet to survey union members about their hopes for the next contract and their opinions on the importance of the health benefits. But, he said, 'it wouldn't surprise me if benefits are an issue in bargaining.'

Closing schools

A local nonprofit group called Innovation Partnership is helping the district pursue redevelopment of some of its buildings that don't house schools, which some studies and community members have said for years needs to happen to end district maintenance costs at those buildings and increase district revenue.

School board member Julia Brim-Edwards said the district should be considering the same possibility for its large headquarters building just across the Willamette River from downtown.

'It's a prime piece of real estate,' she said. 'Could you take those services and staff at that facility and have them at a facility on less valuable land? There's no particular reason why (district administrator offices) have to be in that location on that real estate.'

Innovation Partnership also is scheduled to present a long-range facilities plan it's producing for the district in two weeks. That report Ñ along with the district budget issues Ñ may lead board members to talk more seriously about an always sensitive issue: closing some of the district's 100 or so school buildings.

The district has maintained roughly the same number of schools as enrollment has declined for years.

School board member Marc Abrams has suggested the need for closing some schools, and Larson said he believes at least six low-enrollment schools can be closed Ñ with their students reassigned to neighboring schools.

'I think it's very realistic,' Larson said. 'It's the fiscally and educationally prudent thing to do.'