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Smith's 'stable' budget leans on legislative action

For the first time in her six years, Portland Public Schools Superintendent Carole Smith has a positive budget message to deliver to the public: No more across-the-board cuts.

Thanks to a promise by Gov. John Kitzhaber and Legislative leaders to fund K-12 schools at $6.75 billion for the 2013-14 school year, Smith told the school board Monday night that she’s proposing a budget of “relative stability” that will halt the erosion of the budget during the past two decades.

“I’m actually pleased to be right where we are,” Smith said.

In short, Smith’s budget proposal includes:

• Adding 66 staff positions to the schools, 35 of which will go to high schools and 45.5 of which come from the voter-approved arts tax. Each elementary school in the district will receive one arts instructor (visual, dance, music or theater) for every 500 students. It’s estimated that $4.5 million will be collected this year from the arts tax.

• Making targeted investments to increase graduation rates, support early literacy and increase student achievement among historically underserved schools

from or add to the current 4 percent level of reserves for PPS.

• Reinvesting $3.3 million in savings from operational practices (i.e. converting to more energy efficient boilers) to programs in schools.

The budget does not tap into the district’s reserves, currently at 4 percent of the budget, nor does it add to the reserves.

The budget will also take a hit from various sources.

Federal sequestration will cut federal support to PPS by $2.5 million next year, eliminating eight to nine instructional specialists funded by federal Title 1 dollars. Smith is proposing that the general fund pick up the portion of federal funds to federal grants programs including early kindergarten transition and SUN schools.

About half a dozen other grants will expire as well, including Roosevelt High School’s federal school improvement grant.

Roosevelt and other state-designated “Focus” and “Priority” schools will, however, receive added supports. In line with the district’s Racial Equity Policy, schools with a high percentage of “historically underserved students” will receive another 4 percent of the allocated staffing ratio. Those are schools with a high percentage of black, Latino, Native American and Pacific Islander students, as well as special education students, ESL students and students who are eligible for free- and reduced-price meals.

Smith’s budget proposal hinges on the Legislature approving a $6.75 billion K-12 education budget, plus $200 million in savings from PERS reform. “I think we have a high level of confidence” in Kitzhaber’s proposed budget, PPS Chief Financial Officer David Wynde said Monday. “If funding doesn’t materialize, we’ll have to recraft the budget based on what we have at that time.”

If the PERS savings don’t materialize, PPS could lose the equivalent of 80 teaching positions. Smith lauded state leaders, but cautioned that future re-investments in K-12 schools are needed.

Schools have been forced to make cuts since the passage of Measure 5, 20 years ago, she said. For the past four years, she says, PPS has cut tens of millions of dollars each year as state funding was reduced by more than half a billion dollars, while costs have increased.

“Stable does not equal adequate,” Smith told the board. “This is a step in the right direction. The governor’s three-biennium plan for reinvesting in education is hopeful, with the next biennium seeing actual reinvestment in education in our state.”

Smith’s budget proposal is a far cry from last year at this time, when a last-minute deal between the PPS, city of Portland and Portland Association of Teachers managed to stave off 110 positions that would have been cut.