Portland superintendent uses bad math, some say

Schools boss blasted for budget based on questionable revenue

The longtime co-chairman of the Portland Public Schools' Citizen Budget Advisory Committee is criticizing the fact that Superintendent Vicki Phillips has based her proposed budget on the Oregon Legislature approving $6.3 billion for K-12 education statewide, rather than the $6.06 billion proposed by Gov. Ted Kulongoski.

Tony Larson, a professional mediator who leads the eight-person advisory committee, feels it's not prudent to use 'an estimate that's not based on good faith, but on the superintendent posturing the district to put pressure on the Legislature to provide a higher allocation.

'That's improper in a budget document, in that a budget document is required to be based on real or likely revenue sources.'

Phillips took the same tactic in 2005, Larson said, basing the district's budget on a $5.3 billion statewide appropriation rather than the actual $5.2 billion proposed.

The committee is sure to highlight the issue in its annual review of the district's budget, which they began last week.

The committee has begun requesting specific information from the district to analyze, and it will present its recommendations to the school board on March 12.

The public also will get a chance to weigh in on school budget issues at a public hearing set for March 6. The board is scheduled to vote on approving the budget April 16.

The budget then goes to the Multnomah County Tax Supervising and Conservation Commission before returning to the school board for formal adoption on June 25.

Although Phillips framed this year's proposed budget as a 'good news' budget - since it is the first time in more than a decade that no sweeping cuts have to be made - citizens will certainly grill district leaders on the cost of all the change that has come in the past year.

Among the questions parents, teachers, school board members and observers have been raising:

• Is the district really saving money or avoiding expenditures by closing schools and converting others to K-8? If so, how much? And how much money can the district afford in making the improvements on buildings to accommodate the new grade levels?

• What kind of materials is the district buying for $4 million to institute a core curriculum in schools? The discussion over these materials is ongoing.

• What's in store for Portland's teachers and staff in terms of salaries and health benefits?

• How does the district propose to add back and sustain more counselors and instruction in art, music and physical education over the next few years?

• How many positions have been added back or newly created in the district's central office?

And finally, what happens if the $6.3 billion from the state does not come through? That's what some parents are wondering, even as they rally for more education funding.

Leslie Franks, a Laurelhurst Elementary mother of two, was one of the 3,000 Oregonians who went to Salem on Monday to rally lawmakers. She said she met with the state representative in her district, Democrat Ben Cannon, and asked if he'd work with his caucus for the $6.3 billion.

'He said of course, but it's going to be a tough fight,' Franks said. 'I'm concerned as a parent that the $6.3 billion is going to be a tough fight.'

District defends number

District spokeswoman Sarah Carlin Ames said Portland isn't the only district to use the $6.3 billion figure. 'The March budget revenue forecast isn't (good), but we try to be realistic about these things,' Ames said. 'It is a realistic number to use.'

Mike Rosen, the Portland chapter chairman for Stand for Children, agreed: 'We're at a time when the economy's recovering, there's a pro-schools Legislature, a governor that ran on education platform. It's time to reinvest,' he said. '(Phillips) is presenting a reasonable future that the state can achieve.'

Ames said the difference for Portland, between the $6.3 billion and the $6.06 billion allocations from the state, is $8.4 million next year.

If the district needs to make up for that balance, it would be a discussion for the school board, Ames said. 'There might be areas to cut back and save some money from other parts of the budget, or spend part of the reserves.'

The district has built its reserves up to $32 million, about 8 percent of the overall $408 million budget. The reserves must cover the cost of any major emergencies, the yet unknown cost of back pay and legal settlements for school custodians, outstanding labor negotiations and health care costs.

When it comes to her own kids' school, Franks is wondering how much money Laurelhurst will get to support its sixth grade next year, in phasing in its K-8 program.

She said the school must make a lot of improvements, ranging from an updated playground to a computer lab and other resources for older kids.

Some schools are lacking

Phillips has set aside a total of $3 million for all facility improvements, some of which may go to the 17 buildings undergoing reconfiguration. Franks fears that won't nearly be enough. She said Laurelhurst has an active parent base that can help fund foreign language and band programs, but other schools aren't so lucky.

One of them is Woodlawn Elementary, where kids have only one 40-minute P.E. class each week, and have no art or music classes, said Jeremy Thomas, who teaches sixth grade there.

He said teachers like himself, without expertise in art or music, must try to integrate those subjects into their reading and math lessons. But it's not as easy as it sounds, he said.

There are standards that need to be followed, and it takes a lot of planning time, which teachers at Woodlawn don't have because students are always in class with them. More money from the state could add those enrichment courses, he said.

Thomas is also looking for answers from the district during the budget process on how it plans to add seventh and eighth grades at Woodlawn over the next two years.

'It's a pretty full school,' he said. 'We're told somebody's working on it but haven't seen any plans yet. Now it's halfway through the school year, we're getting a little concerned.'

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