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Nothing personal, commissioners insist

Rojo de Steffey, Cruz Walsh and Naito say SUN cuts are not part of a vendetta

Whether or not you believe them, the three Multnomah County commissioners who want to cut $1.6 million from a wildly popular school program insist it's not about a personal vendetta against county Chairwoman Diane Linn.

In what's shaping up to be the most adversarial county decision since the board allowed same-sex marriages two years ago. Commissioners Serena Cruz Walsh, Maria Rojo de Steffey and Lisa Naito will argue at Thursday's budget hearing that their proposed cuts to the Schools Uniting Neighborhoods Community Schools program are justified.

They say the SUN program has not produced adequate data to show that it actually works; that after-school supervision doesn't align with the county's core services; and that, while it is an important service, others - like school-based health clinics and teen parent services - are higher in priority for the county to fund.

'I've heard of the activities supported by our efforts, and they're good,' Cruz Walsh said. 'But if I'm comparing cheerleading, sewing and knitting to programs that directly impact the lives of children and their families, they don't compare.'

Linn, meanwhile, points to the hundreds of families, school officials and children's service providers who've spent the past week rallying to save the program and praising its benefits to lower-income and lower-achieving children.

Created in 1999 as a network of before- and after-school programs for Portland Public Schools, the program has spread to 52 elementary, middle and high schools, a third of the county's schools. Linn said recently the goal is to expand to all schools in the county.

The programs provide free homework help, recreational activities and health and social services, such as individual counseling. Of the 60,000 students served last year, about 65 percent were minorities.

The programs are run by local nonprofits, which contract with the county to provide dozens of courses such as drama, creative writing, cartooning, tae kwon do, African dance, Spanish, ecology and reading support. Some of the nonprofits include Portland Impact, Self Enhancement Inc. and Metropolitan Family Services.

The funding scheme for the SUN program is complex. In total the county's Department of School and Community Parternships spends about $21 million on SUN-related programs each year in general and other funds. Of that, $4.2 million goes directly to the SUN School sites for coordinators and program contracts, and the rest goes to support services such as Touchstone, a county program that offers family support in 23 schools.

Other departments in the county spend millions more for SUN-related services such as school-based health centers and mental health counseling.

Besides county funds, the SUN system also is supported by state grants, Portland Parks and Recreation and the Children's Investment Fund.

Reorganization a priority

Last week after major opposition, Cruz Walsh, Rojo de Steffey and Naito backed off an initial move to cut half of the site coordinators from the SUN School budget. The site coordinator oversees the funding, partnerships and programming at each school and serves as the primary contact with students and families.

The commissioners now are asking that the county's Department of School and Community Partnerships, which runs the program, assemble a group of stakeholders to develop a short-term and long-term plan by July 31.

They want to see the program reorganized so that it prioritizes the schools with the highest poverty levels, and also prioritizes county services over after-school activities. They also want the office to propose cuts to its administrative staff.

'We would like to see all schools remain open; however, if a consensus of the group is to pursue a different strategy in dealing with the cuts … we'll take a look at that,' Cruz Walsh said.

She cites a report done by county chief financial officer Dave Boyer in March, which shows that the Department of School and Community Partnerships has a disproportionately high number of administrators. It finds that 13.6 percent of its staff are administrators, compared to an average of 5.5 percent in all county-run programs.

The SUN School site coordinators were not included in the list of administrators.

Lolenzo Poe, director of that office, says his department has more administrative functions than most because it has more than 40 different funding sources and 80 percent of its work is managing its 50-plus contracts.

Yet some outside observers say that's the very reason the various layers of managers in that office are able to get by without scrutiny - because the nature of their partnerships is so complex.

Hard data is lacking

Despite all of the community stories about the SUN program's effectiveness, Cruz Walsh, Rojo de Steffey and Naito say another concern is a lack of hard data to demonstrate it.

The Northwest Regional Education Laboratory issued a report in January that said 77 percent of children in SUN programs improved in reading scores and 73 percent in math. SUN supporters have used the report to tout its positive outcomes.

However, the commissioners say there was no control group and didn't represent all of the program participants, just 41 percent who were 'regular attendees.'

Researcher Kim Yap, who led the work, said that is true; the study was simply a Phase I study which used data the county had collected and was meant to illustrate what could be done. It wasn't an 'impact study,' which would be done with a more scientific approach, he said. He has recommended that a Phase II study be conducted in the future, but it depends on funding.

Linn, who finishes out her term at the end of the year, said the SUN program, along with reforms in the mental health system, licensing gay marriages and addressing school funding, have been her proudest accomplishments in office. Just last week, she was in Baltimore picking up an award for the SUN School program at North Portland's George Middle School, which was one of three schools in the country honored by the Coalition of Community Schools' National Forum.

'What is it I'm supposed to do?' Linn said about the upcoming vote. 'There's nothing I can do to stop the fuse. I've been a community activist all my life; all I know is to gain the community's support.'

The county board will hold a budget work session today at 4 p.m.; it is open to the public, but no public testimony will be taken. The board will take public comment at 9:30 a.m. Thursday and is set to vote on the budget at 10:15 a.m. Both events will be held at the first-floor boardroom at the Multnomah Building, 501 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd.