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Success comes down to leaders, funding

What will it take for Portland Public Schools to become a well-funded, high-quality school district?

Let's start with the quality of education. Speaking from my own experience as a parent, my two children (now in high school and middle school) have gotten a very good education in Portland Public Schools Ñ but that is not true for all children in our district, especially for children from low-income homes, children of color and children in homes where English isn't spoken. In Portland we have many fine teachers, a number of highly effective principals and some excellent schools, but we do not have excellence systemwide.

To get there, PPS needs leadership with a vision. The district also needs to 1) provide our children with a challenging curriculum; 2) nurture excellence in teaching; 3) support parent and community involvement; 4) implement effective communication practices; and 5) develop a school improvement system.

The good news is, for the first time in a decade, we have that leadership in place, and it is acting on all five of these measures. We have a dedicated volunteer school board, focused on what's best for kids. We have one of the best superintendents in the country. If you don't believe me, try talking to parent leaders in other cities.

The next step for PPS is to ensure excellence in leadership at every school. It's been amply demonstrated that good principals can be the key to turning a school around, by building teamwork among their staff, supporting parent involvement and improving the curriculum. If low-income, minority kids can succeed at Vernon and Ball elementary schools, there is no reason why they can't achieve at every school. It starts with the principal. Better principals, in turn, help to bring out the best in teachers.

As for school finance, let's start by saying there is a lot of misunderstanding among the public. In part, it's because school finance is a complex subject. In part, it's because there has been poor communication by the schools, the media and those with a political ax to grind. In part, it's because sometimes we, the voters, don't do our homework. Here are a few facts, some of which may surprise you:

• Portland Public Schools spends less than 4 percent Ñ about $15 million Ñ of its general fund budget (not including federal money), on central administration. Since 1990, about 100 central office positions have been eliminated.

• If you're a homeowner, your school taxes went down this year. Two PPS school taxes expired. My taxes went down about $400. Of course, if taxes go down, so does school funding: the district lost $33 million, and 260 teachers and assorted other staff members lost their jobs. My son's middle school lost the art teacher, the librarian and the computer teacher.

• Oregon is a low-tax state. Since 1990, when property taxes were limited, we've slid down the ladder to number 36 among states in terms of taxes as a percentage of income. The state's taxes on businesses are especially low in national rankings. Oregon's school funding, on a per student basis, is 9 percent below the national average.

• For those of you concerned about the cost of health insurance benefits for PPS teachers, the district has cut spending on health insurance by 9 percent in the last two years. Benefits have been capped for all nonteaching positions, and teachers now are contributing $75 a month toward insurance. Meanwhile as with almost every other large employer, health care costs have been going up.

• Regarding the cost of retirement benefits, this is a statewide issue over which PPS has no control. However, the district did refinance its PERS liability, for an estimated savings of $8 million a year.

What to do about the district's $57 million budget hole this year? Without a new schools tax, the only 'solution' is to put together some one-time money Ñ $25 million if we're lucky Ñ and pray that the Oregon economy really gets going. That will mean, of course, that the district cuts $32 million from its budget next year, by cutting teachers and/or shortening the school year.

Scott Bailey is president of the board of directors of Community & Parents for Public Schools in Portland.