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Saving Outdoor School just one funding priority

My View • Many good school district programs face the budget ax this year
by: Christopher Onstott Bhakishop Yoga Center teacher Jessica Garay (front) leads a class at the center that donated a portion of its proceeds in August to restore days to Portland's Outdoor School. PPS was unable to close the $435,000 funding gap for Outdoor School this year.

As students and families prepare for their return to school this week, I know that their anticipation is in some cases tempered by concerns about budget cuts, layoffs and program losses at their schools.

Our troubled economy hit state coffers hard, which meant dramatically reduced funding for education. That forced Portland Public Schools to make difficult decisions about priorities, so we could avert large increases in class sizes and protect core programs in our schools.

It could have been worse. Portland voters stepped up, even in these difficult times, and extended and expanded our local option levy, bringing $19 million to our schools. But even with the passage of a new local option, we still faced a $20 million hole in our $443 million budget.

Paring back the length of our Outdoor School program from six days to three was one of many hard decisions we made to fill that hole. Maintaining the full six- day program would have cost another $435,000. That would have meant deeper cuts in core programs. We couldn't do that, but at least we can still offer PPS students an Outdoor School experience.

Outdoor School, run by the Multnomah Education Service District, has inspired students for decades. In budget hearings, many students shared cherished Outdoor School memories, and described the unique learning experiences that Outdoor School offered beyond their classroom walls and the leadership and mentoring opportunities it provided.

We appreciate the efforts of students and community members who have raised funds for Outdoor School. However, even with the Friends of Outdoor School's fundraising efforts, we still face too large a budget gap to make a full restoration likely this year. But community efforts to support MESD in lowering the cost of Outdoor School for school districts could be part of the equation in the future.

We encourage community supporters of Outdoor School to work with MESD. Due to cuts in state funding for K-12 education and the loss of federal stimulus dollars, PPS must focus our increasingly limited funds on our core programs and high-leverage instructional initiatives. These include: early childhood supports, efforts to keep more students on track by better tailoring the help they receive, and programs to raise our high school graduation rate, benefiting our students and our city as a whole.

To preserve these priorities we made painful cuts - not just to Outdoor School. We started with zero cost of living increases for staff. We laid off more than 20 central office employees. We eliminated 45 teaching positions in our high schools, as we redesigned our high school schedules.

Our K-5 schools lost almost 13 teaching positions. The result: A number of schools cut enrichments such as music, much to the distress of those parents and students, but among the hard choices to keep the number of students in our core classrooms manageable.

Essential skills

We are grateful for the efforts of Friends of Outdoor School, which raised $40,000. Our community's commitment to our schools is our foremost strength.

While we are not in a position this year to cover the remaining $395,000 gap to restore the three days, we will continue conversations with community partners and the MESD about building back the program over time.

In the meantime, there is much for students and families to feel hopeful about as they head back to school.

PPS students are showing promising gains in reading, writing and math, especially in early and middle grades.

Focused efforts across PPS, and hard work by our teachers and students, are paying off. That bodes well for long-term improvements in our graduation rate.

Along with better results, we are building stronger partnerships in support of our students. We have a new teacher evaluation system for the first time in 30 years, which will improve the quality of feedback teachers receive about instruction. We have this new system because teachers and administrators created it together. This kind of collaboration is the way forward to build the excellence we want for our students.

School board members and I spent the summer talking with parent and community groups about next steps for modernizing our schools. Everyone we've spoken with - both supporters and opponents of the last bond proposal - acknowledges the urgent need to upgrade Portland's schools. I appreciate their open feedback and suggestions. I believe that hearing these different viewpoints will lead to a future bond package that will enjoy broader community support.

At Project Community Care on Aug. 27, more than 6,000 volunteers turned out to beautify our school grounds and welcome our students back.

Our community is behind our schools. The Friends of Outdoor School demonstrate that. And we have amazing students, including those who testified about Outdoor School. Their ability to confidently and persuasively advocate for a program they love speaks to the essential skills they gained in Outdoor School and in their regular classrooms.

We cannot close the funding gap for Outdoor School this year, but we remain committed to producing such remarkable and capable students in every school and program in PPS.

Carole Smith is superintendent of Portland Public Schools.