What will happen to the children who attend schools participating in the SUN program? With Multnomah County's portion reduced by $1.7 million, the answer is, well … clouded.
"We are trying to figure out what the short-term plan will look like," said Diana Hall, program supervisor in the county's Department of School and Community Partnerships, which operates the SUN program.
When three of the five Multnomah County commissioners — Serena Cruz Walsh, Lisa Naito and Maria Rojo de Steffey — voted to reduce the county's $19 million budget for the Schools Uniting Neighborhoods program last week, the public outcry was loud and clear: Don't harm a program that has proven beneficial to our children.
Serving 52 schools throughout the county, the program, founded in 1999 by the county and the city of Portland, combines an array of academic, health and counseling services and activities tailored to individual communities and involving community volunteers. The children served range from preschoolers to high school seniors.
Some of the North and Northeast Portland schools involved in the program include Jefferson and Roosevelt high schools; Ockley Green, Portsmouth, Tubman and George middle schools; and King, Sabin, Faubion and Clarendon elementary schools.
For the 900 children — mostly low-income and minority — enrolled in the Self-Enhancement Inc. SUN schools programs, the cutbacks — if they result in the loss of students who drop out of schools — could be "alarming and a crisis" in the making, said Tony Hopson, president and CEO of Self-Enhancement Inc.
Since the budget decision was made a week ago, the program's participants, including the Office of School and Community Partnerships, the city of Portland and the school districts, have been scrambling to develop a short-term plan in response to the cuts. The county board wants a proposal by July 31.
The short-term plan will propose administrative positions to be eliminated, but, according to a budget directive written by the county board, the board intends that all SUN sites will remain open. At the same time, the planning group could prioritize schools "with the highest poverty levels" and determine how county services — other than supervision and coordination of after-school activities — can be provided.
As Hopson sees it, the planning group can go one of two ways: It could suggest across-the-board reductions for all of the schools, or it could close some SUN programs and allowing the remaining programs to run as they are now.
"If the cuts are made across the board, it could almost destroy our efforts," Hopson added. "We don't have enough money to run the programs now; we all add a little from our own budgets. A cutback in any form could be devastating.
"If you cut them all back, you really don't have a SUN program anymore," he said.
Hopson said he would prefer closing some of the SUN programs, maintaining the others and opening a few more at a time as revenue allows.
He worries that the loss of the program, which has won national attention for its innovative approach, could mean more students would lose interest in school.
"One of the keys to SUN's academic success is through its holistic approach, Hopson said. "It provides options and opportunities to get excited about — whether that is music, sports, computers or art. They're providing access to those things, and the children are excited about coming to school." With the cutbacks, he added, "students may drop off and drop out."
But applying budget reductions isn't as clear-cut as Hopson might believe, according to Dianna Iverson, director of the SUN program and currently on assignment as education policy director for county board Chair Diane Linn.
Because the county's portion pays for only 29 of the 52 schools, "we don't have jurisdiction over all 52 schools," Iverson said. "It will be devastating for 29 sites, and it won't affect the other sites at all."
As of right now, "We don't have a complete understanding about how in the world we're going to apply these cuts," she said.
The other partners in the program — the city of Portland, the school districts and the Commission on Children, Families & the Community "aren't interested in redesigning the program on two weeks' notice when it took us two years to create it," Iverson added.
She called the board's decision "very disappointing," especially because it came at the same time Linn received a national award recognizing the program's success.
However, Iverson said she's hoping that a "temporary, six-month" plan can be developed until incoming county commission Chair Ted Wheeler and another commissioner, to be elected in November, begin their terms in January. Then, Iverson said, she thinks the board, which could have three supporters, including Wheeler, current board member Lonnie Roberts and the new commissioner may support reinstatement of the funding. The money could be taken out of the county's new $3.5 million business income tax reserve fund, she said.
"With 500 to 700 people — ranging from students, principals, parents, the governor and the superintendent of public instruction — testifying for the program, I don't see where a competent elected official could vote against it," Iverson said.
In addition to the short-term plan, a board-appointed task force will look at all of the services provided by the county for students. The report from this task force, due by Feb. 1, will suggest how the county can deliver the services by using alternative funding sources and determine if the county should provide them or turn them over to other jurisdictions, such as the school districts themselves.
"The task force should recommend strategies to redesign the distribution of county funds to provide services to all Multnomah County children with a priority on the most vulnerable," according to the budget directive.
"The tremendous fiscal pressure our jurisdiction is facing now and in the foreseeable future requires us to be creative in finding savings while best serving the county's citizens," the document said.
A $23 million budget shortfall looms over the county horizon next year.
Nicknamed the "mean girls" by some opponents to the reduction proposal, the three commissioners said the county couldn't afford to maintain its current contribution to the SUN program and still pay for other vital services. Such services included a public dental program for families who don't have access to dental care and transitional housing for 450 high-risk offenders.
Wheeler said Wednesday that he wanted to explore alternative funding sources for the program. Among his "brainstorm ideas" are asking the business community to sponsor a SUN program; applying to foundations for help; asking Gov. Ted Kulongoski, who has expressed interest in taking the SUN program statewide, for financial support; or seeking help from the Children's Investment Fund.
"I don't think we should be afraid to ask," Wheeler said.
Current commission Chair Linn said she "welcomes" his involvement in "exploring ways to keep SUN Schools whole" in the budget Wheeler is soon to inherit.
"As Chair, I believe the summer months are a critical time to figure out how to make sure a strong SUN program is there for at-risk or low-income children and families in need when schools open in the fall," Linn said in her newsletter on the Multnomah County Web site.
"Every person who advocated for SUN during the budget process should remain involved to ensure we continue serving our community's children well. Their ideas, experiences, stories and passion will help to ensure that SUN continues to shine — and even grow — for years to come."