Fears of state budget kept the board from spending more

The Portland Public Schools district has some walking around money this spring after the board unanimously authorized the superintendent to dispatch $7.5 million immediately to schools.

The district’s 2014-15 rainy day fund had grown far beyond the board’s original 2003 goal of 3 percent to an unexpected 7 percent of the total budget. PPS has a total budget of approximately $550 million, so this reserve amounted to about $38 million.

In an effort led by Directors Tom Koehler, Bobbie Regan and Steve Buel, the board eventually voted to spend down to a contingency fund of just more than 5 percent.

The board is still ramping up for the 2015-16 budget process, but wanted to infuse schools with extra cash for one-time investments now. (See below for list.)

To develop a spending plan in just two weeks, Superintendent Carole Smith sent a survey to 5,000 teachers and staff, of whom 40 percent responded. The most-requested item was upgrades to technology with 69 percent of respondents listing it as either “very important” or “extremely important.”

Smith offered two spending plans to the board — one for $12.1 million and the other for $7.2 million — but explained that in the worse-case scenario from uncertainties in the current state budgeting process and the potential “kicker” tax refund could eat up their reserves.

“So what you’re trying to weigh is what is your sweet spot of investment now and what is your contingency,” Smith told the board Feb. 10.

Directors Ruth Adkins and Pam Knowles found those possibilities particularly worrisome, and were not willing to risk a worst-case scenario of a 1.8 percent ($9.5 million) contingency fund.

“I keep thinking back to those years we were doing all those cuts ... and we would like to minimize the amount of cuts if all these terrible things happened,” Knowles said.

Though the majority stood behind the superintendent’s 5.5 percent plan, Regan added a request for an additional $300,000 to the principals’ discretionary budgets. This matched a $300,000 commitment from a union-administration joint committee.

“That would give our principals some immediate flexibility in the field,” Regan said.

The board, however, rejected a proposal by Buel to spend $1 million on hiring literacy teachers and expanding athletic programs in middle grades.

Director Greg Belisle criticized the amendment for not being strategic.

“In fact it feels like we are trying to spend money fast and furious, rather than focus on what is the best outcomes for our kids,” Belisle said. Adkins agreed, saying it didn’t make sense to hire new staff this late in the year.

However, the board heard from at least one critic who thought the entire process was too informal. Scott Bailey of Community and Parents for Public Schools (CPPS) of Portland urged them on Tuesday, Feb. 24, to come up with a educational vision process and a strategic plan.

Bailey argued that without one, the schools tend to prioritize funding to subjects that show up on standardized tests.

"There is no music test. We’re never going to see a headline of the achievement gap between clarinetists," he said. "Our default is teach to the test.... If we don’t have that vision, that is our default."

What will the money go to?

  • $3.3 million: Technology upgrades, such as planned replacements of digital projectors and computers
  • $1.38 million: New books, musical instruments and sports equipment
  • $770,000: School safety improvements, such as upgrades and repairs
  • $750,000: Summer school and make up programs
  • $630,000: Teacher training programs, such as for diversity, dyslexia and college prep
  • $375,000: Boost career and technical education (CTE) funding
  • Source: Portland Public Schools

    By Shasta Kearns Moore
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