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Albina Highway Covers
Nancy Mccarthy of The Skanner
Published: 23 March 2006

While children ran down the halls of Lent Elementary School or created crayon designs on butcher paper in the school auditorium on Tuesday night, their parents fretted over how Portland Public Schools would pay its bills with $57 million less in the district's budget.

The decision will need to be madesoon.District Superintendent Vicki Phillips will deliver her budget proposal to the school board on Monday, April 3, with another proposal to reconfigure the schools on April 4. A budget hearing is scheduled Tuesday, April 11, and the board plans to adopt the budget on April 24.

"I've lived all over the world and have never seen anything like this," Provenzano said. "I'm baffled by it.
"How low on the totem pole education is in this state," he added. "It's a low priority, and I'm troubled by it."

Tuesday's meeting was similar to others held throughout Portland this month. During a general session, the district's chief operating officer Cathy Mincberg narrated a slideshow that demonstrated, with pie charts and lists, how the school district spends its $329 million budget to educate 44,000 students. Later, parents gathered in smaller discussion groups held in classrooms and squirmed in child-sized chairs while they offered ideas for reducing expenses.

Tom Provenzano, whose son attends Rose City Park Elementary School, said he had always taken for granted that the school would be there. Rose City is one of 11 schools — including Humboldt Elementary in Northeast Portland — that could close if a preliminary school district draft plan, leaked to the media a week ago, comes true. The potential plan, characterized by Superintendent Vicki Phillips as one of many options, also would modify 27 middle and elementary schools into kindergarten-through-eighth grade.

"I've lived all over the world and have never seen anything like this," Provenzano said. "I'm baffled by it.
"How low on the totem pole education is in this state," he added. "It's a low priority, and I'm troubled by it."

Just a few hours earlier in the day, other parents announced that they were suing the state of Oregon, claiming the state's leaders have failed to adequately fund public schools. Oregon ranks 30th in the country for per-student spending (in 2002-2003 it was $7,491). In 12 years the state dropped 15 places from its 15th-place standing in 1990-1991. Only Florida dropped faster, going from 21st to 43rd place.

While that announcement was being made, superintendentsinsevenother Multnomah County school districts also were conducting a news conference. They said they also wanted more money, and if the county board of commissioners planned to give Portland schools some funds, then they wanted their fair share, too.

For months, Portland school district officials, city and county leaders and various parent groups have wrangled over how to make up a $57 million shortfall in next year's budget.Thelossof Multnomah County's income tax, along with other financial losses, means more needs to come from constantly shrinking resources.

"I want to stress that we have looked at all of our schools as part of this review."
- District Superintendent Vicki Phillips

Last month, Mayor Tom Potter called together a daylong education summit and created the Children's Education Coalition to find more money. The committee, chaired by Sho Dozono, president of Azumano Travel, came up with $31 million, to be split between the Portland schools, which will receive $21 million, and the seven other districts. However, it's a one-year-only plan.

The coalition's proposal would require $10 million from the city, $9 million from extending the city's business license fee surcharge, $6.4 million from Multnomah County and $6.3 million in state lottery funds. But the surcharge extension isn't a done deal yet, and the Legislature would have to meet in a special session to distribute the lottery funds to Portland schools.

Other ideas offered range from closing some schools, merging middle schools with elementary schools to create kindergarten-through-eighth-grade schools, reducing teaching positions and increasing class sizes, reducing health care benefits for employees, cutting the administrative staff and selling the administration building.

Some of these ideas have already been tried. Five schools were closed and 250 teaching positions were cut last year, and the central office staff has been reduced by 66 percent over the past 15 years, according to Mincberg. A report examining the advantages of selling the administration building concluded that the zoning in the area would prevent the building from being used for anything else, and it would cost an additional $20 million to move into new headquarters even if the building could be sold.

The district is even offering an online survey — at www.pps.k12.or.us — asking people to rank nine priorities and to suggest cuts. The survey, which has attracted 3,000 responses, asks if the district should:
• Operate the same number of school buildings;
• Keep class sizes to 25 in elementary schools and 30 in high schools;
• Offer a full school year without cutting any days;
• Avoid shifting administrative work, such as payroll, to schools;
• Continue to seek educational reforms, such as advanced coursework, full-day kindergarten and high school reform;
• Offer students electives, including music and the arts, physical education and health classes;
• Pay employees salaries and benefits equal to or better than most neighboring districts;
• Maintain budget reserves equal to two weeks of school district costs and to cover emergencies; and
• Preserve programs such as Outdoor School for sixth-grade students, interscholastic sports and high schools and replace most outdated computers in schools.

At Tuesday night's meeting, parents in one discussion group placed pre-glued dots at the side of the listed priorities. Recommendations receiving the most dots were maintaining budget reserves, operating in the same number of buildings, offering a full school year and maintaining programs such as Outdoor School and interscholastic sports.
The schools that could be closed if the district's draft plan were approved, would be Humboldt,Stephenson, Creston, Bridger, Astor and Hollyrood in 2006, and Rieke, Sitton, Woodmere, Rose City and Llewllyn in 2007.

Phillips has said that her goal is to "ensure that any school reconfigurations include preserving reasonable class sizes as well as adding back art, music and wellness to the curriculum."

"I want to stress that we have looked at all of our schools as part of this review," Phillips said after news of the potential school closures came out.

While Phillips and the school board worry about numbers, the Neighborhood Schools Alliance, a vocal group of parents, teachers and community members from throughout Portland, called the proposal to reconfigure schools "out of control, out of touch with its customers and doomed to failure if pushed through this spring without adequate public input."

Back at LentElementary on Tuesday night, parents continued to confront school board members and district officials about the funding problems and school closure proposals. Luis Barrios, who hastwochildrenat Woodmere, which also could close, asked a question that many parents apparently had on their minds.

"We're doing this this year, but what about next year and the next year?" Barrios asked. "Are we going to keep doing this until there are no more schools?"


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