At Portland Public Schools, a Budget Debate Is Looming Large

The district says it costs more to run its schools than money at hand, and cuts need to be made. Not everyone is on board.

By Julia Silverman April 22, 2022

Buses pull up in front of Jackson Middle School in Southwest Portland.

A quietly simmering dispute over how much money the state’s largest public school district will have to spend in the upcoming school year—and how it should be spent—spills into public view next week in front of the Portland Public Schools Board of Directors. 

At issue: declining enrollment (a trend that isn’t projected to level off any time soon) and increasing state, local, and federal money, offset by operating costs that the district says are outpacing those revenues by at least $18 million.  

The solution, per district budget crunchers, is to cut staff positions, both teachers and classroom support staff. Unsurprisingly, members of the Portland Association of Teachers—and politicians ranging from city council member Jo Ann Hardesty to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tina Kotek—have taken issue with that approach. The net result would be fewer teachers overall, though not necessarily lost jobs: for just about every teacher who finds themselves on the “unassigned” list, there will be a job to fill, via someone who has retired. 

Underneath the tit-for-tat, though, there are some existential questions at stake: After two years of a pandemic that test scores indicate led to some profound academic learning loss, particularly for BIPOC students and especially in math, is the situation dire enough at Portland’s schools to dig deep into rainy-day funds in order to preserve teaching jobs and keep class sizes as low as possible, in hopes of gaining back some of that lost ground?  

Or should the district stay the course set out by Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero—whose contract was recently extended—and prioritize targeted interventions for its most at-risk students, like reading specialists, summer school, and smaller classes at the highest-need schools, over smaller classes across the board? 

The seven elected members of the Portland School Board, who serve without pay, will have to choose.  

And so far, they don't seem to be in agreement. 

“I believe in us pushing the limit as far as we can. If we push the envelope, and get it where it needs to be, then new money and new opportunities will come up, like it always does,” proclaimed board member Herman Greene, whose day job is as a pastor at the Abundant Life Church in North Portland, during a March 9 budget session. “I don’t believe we should make sure we have this cushion. We can make it up the following year. You need to be able to justify why we can’t spend this money. If the money is there, we should spend it.” 

“I love your optimism,” responded board member Andrew Scott, who serves as deputy chief operating office for the regional government Metro. “Money is going to fall from the sky, it’s always going to be there. But that’s not always the case. Preserving all the positions, lowering all the class sizes, that sounds great. But I have a feeling that is going to result in a huge cliff, in one or two years. And that would be a catastrophe for us as a district. All of the people who have been saying, ‘You’re getting more money’—they’re not wrong. They just left out the other half of the equation, which is that our costs are also going up.” 

Scott’s right about more money: Though the district is projecting 3,000 fewer students in the fall, their allocation from the state is going up, to a projected $537 million, from $520 million. Portland Public Schools will also get another $111 million from a local levy, which pays for more than 800 teachers. There are some other scattered funding sources, for a total projected budget of $704 million in the 2022–2023 school year. (Numbers could still fluctuate, as the state’s budget forecasts wax and wane with tax collections.) 

But costs are going up, too, per PPS chief financial officer Nolberto Delgadillo, thanks to staffing costs and a steep rise in transportation. Gas prices are sky high, if you hadn’t noticed, and the district is paying out big hiring bonuses to bus drivers, on the back of a major regional labor shortage. 

That’s where the $18 million gap comes in. 

Dr. Renard Adams, the district’s chief of research, assessment, and accountability, says that even with fewer overall teaching positions, class sizes in nearly every K–8 classroom are on track to be below the district’s set maximums, given decreased enrollment. (Click here for a projected breakdown of class sizes at every school in the district in the 2022–2023 school year, at every grade level.)  

For example, according to the district’s calculations, next year’s first through third grades will have an average of 22 students per section; middle schools will average 28 students. Class sizes are mostly even lower in schools with a high percentage of Black and Indigenous students, or with more students from low-income families; in some cases, class sizes are higher, but a school may have more intervention educators on hand to pull out kids who need extra help and work with them one on one. 

But at least one school board member, veteran former Nike lobbyist Julia Brim-Edwards, is asking whether class size ceilings are set too high, particularly after a year of distance learning, during which some kids got plenty of at-home support and enrichment and others got virtually none. Currently, the district caps kindergarten at 28 students, grades one through three at 30 students, grades four and five at 32, and middle school classes at 34. 

That’s an argument echoed by Elizabeth Thiel, the president of the Portland Association of Teachers. Speaking to the school board on March 1, she argued that committing to lower class sizes would bring back families who had left the public school system during the pandemic. 

“Instead of reducing the number of educators, could we lower middle school class sizes to no higher than 32?” she asked. “How about no higher than 30 in our Title I schools, like Harriet Tubman, Lane, Roseway Heights, Ockley Green, and George?” 

Because the enrollment decline has been the most pronounced in elementary schools, that’s where the district is focusing most of its proposed cuts. Sixty-one elementary school educators are currently slated to be “unassigned,” along with 31 middle school educators; by contrast, the ranks of high school educators are growing slightly. (It is possible that more students than expected will show up next fall; the district always reserves money to address last-minute hires.) 

There are two sources of money that the district could tap to keep class sizes lower and more teachers on the payroll next year: COVID relief funds from the federal government, and its rainy-day funding. 

PPS has about $70 million in use-it-or-lose-it COVID funding left to spend before 2024. But there’s always a danger in using onetime funding for ongoing expenses, which is why the bulk of that money is being earmarked for summer school, classroom supports, and tutoring programs aimed at the kids who are below grade level in reading and math, along with training for educators. Another chunk is reserved for online learning programs, since some families are opting to stick with distance learning. 

The $88 million or so in rainy-day funding—about 13 percent of the current total budget—is another story. PPS board member Eilidh Lowery, who is also a pastor, has pointed out that the district’s current plan does call for spending down some of its reserves for the upcoming school year, reducing that pot to about 8 percent of the overall budget.  

But she and others on the board are warning against draining that fund further, contending that saving money for the future is wise, as costs of running the school district continue to increase and enrollment projections show continuing declines, due to low birthrates and high housing costs. 

Brim-Edwards, however, has suggested that she’d be open to a different course of action, noting that the board’s own policies allow for reserve funds to go as low as 5 percent of the overall budget. 

“I thought I’d seen it all being on the PPS board, but I’d never been on the board during a pandemic, where we had students who missed hours, weeks, months of instruction,” Brim-Edwards said at the March 9 meeting. “I view the last two years as exceptional years, and I don’t suggest using reserves lightly. But over the last 10 years, we now have a lot more resources coming into our schools from a variety of sources. I view this with a real sense of urgency—maybe we do dig deep and try and fill as much as we can?” 

An updated version budget will come up for debate in front of the school board at a work session open to the public next Tuesday, April 26. A final vote is scheduled for June 14.