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School days may be hit by new cuts

Furloughs, school closures at heart of new budget plan

The last time Portland Public Schools tried to shorten the school year, it landed in a national comic strip.

It was 2003, as many residents remember, the district's decision to chop 24 school days was the subject of a Doonesbury cartoon that made national headlines. No days ended up being cut, however: Mayor Vera Katz and Multnomah County Chair Diane Linn stepped in to broker a last-minute deal for higher taxes. Teachers look back on it as the year they worked 10 days "for free."

PPS hasn't tried to cut school days since then.

This year could be different.

In light of the $27.5 million budget shortfall for next year, Superintendent Carole Smith is talking with the Portland Association of Teachers to discuss the option of taking furlough days next year.

Any furloughs -- which means no school on those days -- would offset cuts to school staffing and avoid increasing the student-staff ratios in schools.

Each furlough day would save $1.4 million, if the entire district shuts down and no employee is paid.

Since Smith has recommended that $10 million in cuts come from schools, eight furlough days would save $11.2 million.

Under the terms of the contract between the district and its teachers union, the association is not required to come to an agreement about furlough days or a shortened school year.

PPS is among four of 14 area school districts that have not cut school days within the past three years.

Smith said it's a statewide issue, a result of "how we fund services in our state and how education has gotten squeezed over successive budgets."

She told the school board last week that it's the fifth budget she's prepared for PPS, and "every year we've had reductions, and this was by far the toughest because of the successive years of making cuts. We do not have that much left to cut."

Districts around the state are in similar positions, she says.

Beaverton schools must cut $40 million after cutting $20 million last year. Salem schools must cut $20 million after slicing $55 million last year.

PPS had a $40 million hole last year but was able to stave off $20 million in cuts thanks to the voters' renewal of the district's local option levy.

District spokesman Matt Shelby says there are pros and cons to taking furloughs versus other savings methods.

"A furlough day is really a one-time savings," he says. "That is not a sustainable cut that you can take year in and year out.

"If you're looking at staffing reduction, that's a cut that saves you money year after year."

What the school board will have to decide, Shelby says, is "how much do you thin the soup versus just cutting the year short."

The talks will have to proceed at a quick pace.

Two public hearings are set for this month, and the school board is scheduled to approve the budget May 14.

North Portland school plan

In addition to cutting $10 million from schools, Smith is proposing to use $7.2 million from reserves and cutting $9.5 million from the central office.

She's also proposing to close the Young Women's Leadership Academy, an offshoot of Jefferson High School that enrolls 180 girls in grades 6 through 12.

And Smith wants to close Humboldt School and consolidate it with Boise-Eliot, both smaller than average preK-8 schools a mile apart in North Portland.

If furloughs don't end up as part of the budget cut package, the $10 million could come from staffing, equating to 110 teaching positions lost.

Or, the cuts could be left to be determined by principals, building by building. Enrichment classes such as art, music, physical education and technology would likely be the first cut, although most of those programs have been scaled back if not eliminated already.

To see Smith's full proposed budget, visit www.pps.k12.or.us.

The two public hearings are set for:

• April 9: 5 p.m. at Cleveland High School, 3400 S.E. 26th Ave.

• April 11: 6 p.m. at Roosevelt High School, 6491 N. Central St.