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Citizens want PPS to protect teachers jobs, preserve class sizes

by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Superintendent Carole Smith already has proposed $3.3 million in central office staff cuts; she'll propose the rest to the school board on April 2. The $27.5 million budget gap could impact class sizes and programs.

Portland Public Schools Superintendent Carole Smith's proposed cut of 36 full-time central office positions has at least accomplished one thing: people are talking about the district budget.

The administrative layoffs, however, total just $3.3 million. There's still a long way to go to address the $27.5 million PPS budget gap caused by reduced state and federal funding and lower than expected property tax collections.

To tackle the shortfall while minimizing the impact to schools, Smith plans to propose $7 million to $9 million in central office cuts.

She'll slice another $10 million from schools, and the remainder will come from the district's reserves.

Hearings planned

Smith will make her budget cut recommendations at the April 2 board meeting. Afterward, citizens will have two opportunities for public input before the board is scheduled to approve the budget May 14. Hearings are set for 5 p.m. April 9 at Cleveland High School, 3400 S.E. 26th Ave.; and 6 p.m. April 11 at Roosevelt High School, 6941 N. Central St.

Some residents already have weighed in on what they want to see preserved and cut in the budget. A total of 70 residents attended two PPS listening sessions on the evenings of March 6 and 8 at Franklin and Wilson high schools.

The meetings were open to everyone; the attendees represented 20 PPS schools.

They were asked about their highest priorities, their biggest concerns and their ideas for balancing the budget.

Their feedback wasn't surprising.

They worried about the budget's impact on improving the graduation rate, maintaining quality teaching, closing the achievement gap and keeping students engaged.

They expressed a strong desire to protect teaching positions to keep class sizes from growing. They wanted to keep enrichment classes such as art, music and physical education, as well as an equitable offering of courses at the high school level.

Last year, the school board filled a $19.4 million budget gap by cutting 25 full-time positions in the central office; 52 full-time positions in English as a Second Language and special education, and 126 teaching positions.

Smith also proposed "a uniform cut to a common program," such as chopping P.E., until the community mounted a protest and she dropped that idea.

During the March 6 and 8 listening sessions, people again urged the district to use reserves and cut central office positions.

Other suggestions included cutting non-personnel expenses and consultants; reducing textbook purchases and curriculum adoptions; and cutting back on spending on transportation, energy professional development and substitute teachers.

They also called for some measures that require collective bargaining with the Portland Association of Teachers -- and will therefore likely be shelved for the time being. Those suggestions include reducing compensation by shortening the school year, changing health care benefits and reducing pay for substitute teachers.

Other money-saving suggestions ventured into controversial or logistically challenging territory: consolidating or closing smaller schools; sharing programs across schools; and hiring more non-licensed staff to increase the number of adults in classrooms and schools.

Prelude to changes

Finally, listening session participants called for long-term solutions, like higher levels of K-12 education funding, reforming the state kicker law and implementing a sales tax.

People asked PPS leaders to extend partnerships with national, regional and local organizations.

Smith's message during the budget adoption last year could be a prelude to this year's: "The school district faces a bleak long-term state budget outlook and PPS already plans to tap $16 million in reserves next year," she wrote June 23, 2010. "For those reasons, the superintendent and board chose not to pursue one-time fixes such as a shortened school year, unpaid furlough days for staff and continued spending of reserves -- instead focusing on actions to reduce costs over several years."