My View • As budget stabilizes, it's time to focus on goals

Not long ago, I marked my 100th day as superintendent of Portland Public Schools - a milestone that's given me a chance to take stock and reflect on where we are and where we should be headed.

I am absolutely committed to building a district that fully challenges and supports every one of our students, and I am determined to bring a clear focus and a strong but steady pace as we work to reach those goals.

Several immediate priorities rise to the top: making our K-8 schools work, developing a districtwide high school strategy and accelerating achievement for all students.

A fourth priority overarches the others: We must develop a plan to consider questions of equity across all district initiatives, examining our work through the lens of race and fairness for our students.

Those critical priorities are reflected in my proposed budget for 2008-09, which the Portland school board is considering. The budget includes $427 million in general fund spending. It also:

• Maintains and, in many schools, improves our teacher staffing ratio at schools, with a push for increased enrichment and rigor for students in their classes.

• Builds on the promise of our high school strategies, supporting small schools where student achievement is rising, and helping all students enter high school ready to achieve.

• Dedicates staffing so that every high school and middle school-age student has access to a counselor.

• Adds staff to bring average kindergarten class sizes to 21, with a goal of having no more than 25 students in any kindergarten class.

• Continues our investment in new materials for teachers and students in their classrooms.

Portland Public Schools is facing a second year of relative budget stability after more than a decade of sweeping cuts. That steadiness is thanks to the community's overwhelming support for the local option funding and the increase in state funding afforded by the improved economy.

Our revenue outlook also is brighter because after years of decreases, our enrollment overall is flattening out (and even growing in the youngest grades).

We cannot help but recognize, however, that while our budget may be stable, it also remains inadequate. State funding per student still has not recovered from the drastic cuts of the statewide recession, and falls far below the state's own measure of a quality education model.

To invest in the priorities above, Portland Public Schools must carefully manage costs. We are:

• Freezing pay for top administrators of central departments and programs

• Managing health care costs

• Reducing administration and professional development

• Cutting custodial costs

• Recouping savings from reduced insurance costs

We will continue to be vigilant to make sure our budget - your tax dollars - is spent in ways that make the most difference for our 46,000 students.

As I developed this budget proposal, I worked with principals and senior leaders in our school district. The process allowed me to consider our priorities, unpack our past decisions, evaluate our direction, and focus our energy to deliver on our promises.

Now we enter a more public discussion involving the school board, PPS employees, students, families and community members. Let us know: Did we hit the mark?

As your school superintendent, I look forward to this conversation and many others as we move our schools forward, together.

Carole Smith, a longtime Portland educator, was named superintendent of Portland Public Schools in October.

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