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School districts feel pinch of new normal

Portland-area schools say they face a no-win scenario in budgets
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Krystal Breece, educational assistant at East Portland’s Walt Morey Middle School, came to a recent Reynolds School District budget meeting to protest potential staff layoffs. The city’s five school districts face staff layoffs and deep program cuts; all but Portland Public Schools are looking at chopping school days too.

Karen Gray might be in charge of one of the smallest school districts in the region, but the cuts she's made over the past three years are massive.

The Parkrose School District superintendent oversees 4,250 students in six schools just east of Interstate 205, a district just a tenth the size of Portland Public Schools.

State budget shortfalls since 2008 have forced her to cut all P.E. teachers from the four Parkrose elementary schools, leave just one librarian to serve the entire district, and end Outdoor School for middle schoolers. Students will be able to attend Outdoor School if a Metro grant pitches in, or if parents raise funds.

Faced with another $4 million in cuts this year, Gray has proposed to eliminate 11 staff positions and chop 20 days off the school year.

'I just keep hearing (people say), 'efficiencies, efficiencies,' ' Gray says. 'I'd just like to have them follow me around all day. We've laid off staff, cut programs. It's totally out of control. At this point, I don't know anymore what anyone can cut or save.'

It's the same desperate, no-win scenario school districts around the metro area are facing.

'People are not pleased,' Rick Larson, business manger of the Centennial School District, says of that district's proposal (subject to union bargaining) to save $2.2 million by cutting 12 school days.

'I think a lot of people are still getting used to the new normal, that we are facing 12 percent cost increases for our personnel at a time when we are having declining funding,' Larson adds.

Centennial, the East County district of 6,500 students, is also looking to lay off 33 teachers. That's on top of the 92 teachers it has laid off since 2008 - a large chunk considering the entire teaching staff stands at 333 teachers in all.

The 10,000-student Reynolds School District, meanwhile, is feeling the pain of federal stimulus money that's drying up.

The district is looking at an overall cut of 16 staff members plus another 61 instructional assistants for Title 1 and special education that were funded by stimulus grants.

'If we hadn't had that money, we would've had to lay off every single year,' says Reynolds spokeswoman Andrea Watson.

Now, she says, under a new special education director hired this month, 'We're going to have to reorganize how to deliver the services. … It's going to be a change, but it can be done.'

Three years of cutting

The cuts continue to ripple throughout East County. In the 11,000-student Gresham-Barlow District, Superintendent Jim Schlachter has proposed saving $5.7 million by cutting five school days from the school year and cutting 65 staff members, including 46 teachers.

'Over the three years, we've reduced the support staff by 10 percent, teachers by 16 percent and administrators by 20 percent,' Schlachter says. It certainly does add a challenge to quality instruction.'

David Douglas, with 10,330 students, is considering chopping $9 million by cutting 79 certified positions, two administrators and nearly 16 full-time equivalents from classified staff.

Portland Public Schools, meanwhile, avoided shortening the school year by making other targeted cuts.

Superintendent Carole Smith unveiled the controversial idea to save $4 million by having high school teachers teach six classes of an eight-period schedule, up from five of seven. State officials subsequently ruled that the new block schedule 'appears to meet minimum state requirements for instructional hours,' so the issue is moving forward.

More of Smith's $17 million in proposed cuts include: cutting cost-of-living adjustments for all employees ($6 million); cuts to central operational and administrative services ($1.5 million); cutting Outdoor School from five to three days ($625,000); cutting 13 teachers from the elementary schools ($1.1 million); and setting aside 10 instead of 20 teaching positions to help meet extra needs at the high schools ($1 million).

Gray, the Parkrose superintendent, is hoping to avoid the same scenario year after year. She's frustrated to see the funding level for schools in the state at $5.7 billion, compared to $6.2 billion three years ago.

'With a new governor comes fresh hope that someone will help to bring K-12 education back to its former percentage of the state's revenue,' she wrote in her personal budget message. 'However, once again, this has not happened.'

The $5.7 billion is a 'ludicrous amount of money; it's a broken promise,' she told the Tribune.

Gray holds out hope that legislators will heed to the lobbyists - including herself - who are asking for more education funds, either before the current session that ends on June 30, or during the February session for the 2012-13 biennium.

The latest economic forecast showed a revenue increase of $129 million, a figure K-12 education advocates are looking toward.

However that boost doesn't appear likely, considering Kitzhaber's focus.

Nancy Golden, education policy advisor to Kitzhaber, told the Tribune that the governor has placed a priority on higher education, early learning and health and human resources.

'If there was extra, what he's saying is he's got some other areas prioritized,' Golden says.