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School leaders right the ship

If Portland's schools are teetering at the edge of the abyss that has consumed so many urban school districts, recent actions by local school leaders provided a shove toward firmer ground.

A series of May decisions by the school board and district Superintendent Vicki Phillips will guide Portland Public Schools through short-term budget difficulties while also providing hope that the district can overcome nagging structural problems.

Among promising signs were appropriate budget choices that Phillips and the volunteer school board made for the 2006-07 fiscal year. Cutbacks, one-time budget savings and short-term revenue fixes will allow the district to make it through the coming school year with a full calendar intact and no class-size increase. Looking toward the longer term, the district is starting to address fundamental issues in some areas, while only scratching the surface in others.

Specifically, district leaders' recent accomplishments include:

• Approving a school-closure plan that shutters at least four more schools and calls for conversion of up to 19 buildings to K-8 schools. While school closures are painful, these decisions are necessary to reduce the expense of operating aging buildings that serve a declining number of students. The K-8 switch, on the other hand, is appropriately motivated by educational advantages, not cost savings.

• Showing a willingness to sacrifice at the administrative level in the 2006-07 budget process. Central managers made a symbolic gesture by agreeing to four-day furloughs and cutting travel and other administrative expenses.

• Keeping student achievement in mind even as budget cuts were implemented.

• Conducting a thorough comparison of administrative expenses to assess whether Portland is out of line with other school districts. The report by District Performance Auditor Sarah Landis Ñ which shows Portland's central expenses are consistent with other districts Ñ ought to lay to rest the notion that all of Portland's budget problems stem from a bloated bureaucracy.

Although the above successes are important, the district is far from finished. Unresolved issues include:

• Finishing the school-closure process with discussions in selected neighborhoods about low enrollment, poor achievement and other issues.

• Negotiating with employee unions to win concessions, especially in the area of health-care benefits. A program needing scrutiny is the Trust Indemnity Plan, which is the most expensive health-coverage option offered to district employees.

• Accepting the district's Citizen Budget Review Committee's recommendation to focus on student needs and education advancement during upcoming labor negotiations.

• Continuing to evaluate two numbers: class size and the total inventory of school buildings. When compared with other Oregon districts, these are two areas where Portland differs. It has lower class sizes than most districts and higher facility costs.

However, the debate over class size and school closures also illustrates the delicate balance that Phillips and the school board must strike as they try to avoid the fate of other urban districts. It's expensive to maintain low student-teacher ratios, but if classrooms become crowded, parents could flee to private schools. It's also costly to maintain old buildings, but if neighborhood schools close, families may look to the suburbs.

Balancing above the abyss is frustratingly difficult. But we believe Portland schools can yet succeed if union employees compromise and if district officials keep student achievement in the forefront of all their decisions.