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Time for lesson in anxiety

Teachers, parents fret about effects of school mergers, proposed cuts
by: Tom Baker, Project administrator Rebekah Phillips conducts the Binnsmead Marimba Band during a rehearsal last year at the middle school. With more students likely to participate as Binnsmead changes to K-8, the teacher who oversees the group worries that resources will be stretched too far, a criticism cropping up as many schools prepare for reconfiguration.

For the past eight years, Eric Schopmeyer has scraped together thousands in private donations and grants to fund his pet project, the marimba band at Marysville Elementary School in outer Southeast Portland.

The band has gained broad esteem, performing concerts citywide at venues such as City Hall and the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. It's also helped kids with the transition to middle school through its partnership with nearby Binnsmead Middle School, he said.

Now, as both schools are set to become K-8 schools over the next two years, Schopmeyer worries that he'll be even further strapped for resources, unable to serve all of the kids who want to participate.

'The continuity that the two programs had worked so long to establish is destroyed,' said Schopmeyer, the full-time music teacher at Marysville. 'The instructors of each program are left with the impossible situation of teaching the entire range of grades that was once split between them.'

He's not the only one concerned about the ripple effects of the district's massive reconfiguration effort. Or about the proposed cuts in staffing that are under way at the schools.

'It's hard not to feel disheartened, having worked so hard to pass (the local option levy for schools) and turn around and start fundraising to fill .75 (full-time employee spot) at our school again,' said Leslie Carlson, a parent at Abernethy Elementary who is trying to save the school's librarian position. 'It's like it never ends.'

Chief defends 'lean' staff

Some parents and teachers wonder whether the district's cuts could come from the central administration, long perceived to be an operation lined with fat.

According to new figures released this week after a request by the Portland Tribune, the district has created 10 new top administrators' positions over the past three years, three of them funded with temporary grants.

These are mostly in the district's office of school leadership and office of teaching and learning, both areas where Superintendent Vicki Phillips said outside groups called for filling in program gaps.

Besides the 10 new positions, there are 34 other top administrators' spots that average about $104,000 in salary and total just over $4 million.

In the district's entire central office, those positions have remained stable in recent years, with 165 employees in 2004, 161 the following year and 162 in the current budget.

Phillips, who often is attacked for her focus and reliance on her top-level staff, says the central administration is still 'lean,' at 4.2 percent of the general fund, and that 71 percent of the general fund is spent directly in the schools.

Of the 44 top administrators, 11 were promoted from within the district; seven are new to the district but worked in Portland-area schools; and 11 came from outside of Portland. About half of those outsiders are minorities.

Still, many parents would like to see the district spend the same amount of effort on adequately staffing the schools as they do the central office.

'Why are they paying these large dollar amounts to many people who are brand-new and don't know how the district works?' said Robin Corrigan, whose children attend Hosford Middle School and Cleveland High School. 'I would question the efficiency of their work. … Although they have fancy titles, the schools are still being affected negatively by the cuts.'

Phillips explained that as is the case every year, schools are being asked to make cuts this year only if they are projected to lose enrollment next year, or if they have a new strategic plan that shifts their priorities.

But it is up to the schools themselves to decide which staff positions to cut, keep and rearrange, she said. 'The unfortunate thing is many of our schools are still being forced to make tough choices,' she said.

'It's because this year's budget is stable but didn't grow. The local option replaced what our partners gave us last year. We hope state funding will continue to inch up over the next few years. But this year we're still juggling inside a stable budget, trying to move as far as we can.'

In light of these cuts, Schopmeyer says it doesn't seem the district is adding more enrichment programs, as promised, if programs like his are in jeopardy.

'That I think is really a lot of spin,' he said. 'You don't necessarily gain something by spreading your resources more thinly.'

Phillips countered that the district is doing what it can by adding back art, music, wellness and other programs to the schools on a districtwide basis as funds become available.

This year, she said the district is adding 24 counselor positions at the larger K-5 and K-8 schools, and the board this week approved spending $1.8 million from the district's reserves to prevent staff cuts at most of the high schools, amid declining enrollment. 'We're trying to inch by inch get our way back there,' she said.

Citizens still have time to comment on the budget process; the school board is set to vote on the proposed budget April 16.

Price put on fixes, upgrades

Another piece of the budget puzzle that is coming to light is the long-awaited cost analysis of the K-8 reconfiguration effort. The district's new numbers show what it has budgeted to fix and upgrade at 34 schools, and how much they'll spend on the efforts over two years.

They show $2.9 million in total fixes, including everything from new carpet and playground equipment to adjusting the heights of drinking fountains and toilets. If costs run over, the board would take up the matter.

The schools with the largest price tags, by far, are Bridger and Fernwood.

Bridger School, 7910 S.E. Market St., is set for $303,885 in fixes as it adds grades six through eight. Fernwood School, 1915 N.E. 33rd Ave., is set for $283,320 in fixes as it merges with Hollyrood Elementary to become a K-8 school, using both buildings.

Many parents who opposed the reconfiguration to begin with remain skeptical of these numbers and watchful as the process continues.

'There's such huge unknowns for the future of the school,' said Karen Miller, a parent at Gregory Heights Middle School, which is merging with Rose City Park Elementary to become a K-8.

'Our staff is working really hard to make it work,' Miller said. 'We haven't started anything (as far as building modifications). We're being told things are going to be fixed. Everything is still very much up in the air. I'm trying to be optimistic. It's been a long, hard couple of years.'

To view all of the budget information provided by Portland Public Schools, visit www.pps.k12.or.us.

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