Portland Public spends more per pupil than almost all other area districts
Portland Public Schools spends more per pupil than almost any other district in the area and most of that money comes from local tax dollars.
That's according to data released earlier this month from the Oregon Department of Education, which releases school financing information as part of its annual school report cards. An analysis of the data by the Portland Tribune included 11 districts in Portland and its suburbs.
PPS spent $12,826 per pupil in 2015-16, eclipsed in per-pupil spending in the Portland area only by the Riverdale School District, a 600-student district in a wealthy unincorporated area between Lake Oswego and Southwest Portland. That district spent $14,443 per student, 71 percent of which came from local sources of money.
Smaller districts across the state tend to spend more money, due to economies of scale in larger districts.
PPS gets more than half of its revenue from local sources, which includes its local- option tax passed by voters in 2014, and private donations. Eight percent of PPS revenue comes from federal grants and 36 percent from the rest of the state.
The David Douglas School District in East Portland spends the third-most in the area per pupil, but its sources of revenue are very different. There, just 15 percent of its money comes from local sources, while 72 percent comes from the state and 12 percent from the federal government.
David Douglas spokesman Dan McCue said their financing figures on the school report card are skewed in part because the district operates a $16 million countywide program — the Multnomah Early Childhood Program for children birth to age 5 — which is state-funded. The district had about $2.2 million in other revenue that went to programs other than their K-12 students, which would put their per-pupil spending at more like $10,828, McCue said.
Portland Public Schools' Deputy Chief Executive Officer Yousef Awwad said his district has similar pass-through monies in its report card data, such as the $21 million Columbia Regional Program, which provides special education services and equipment throughout the area. Awwad said the district's 14 percent of special education students and its local option money also contributes to a higher-than-average per pupil figure.
Michael Wiltfong, director of school finance and school facilities at the Oregon Department of Education, confirmed that the formula used for the report cards doesn't account for programs that may be serving children outside the district or outside its K-12 system.
Wiltfong said school districts spend and receive different amounts because their students have different levels and types of educational needs.
"No two schools are the same as far as their student population, their demographics and their needs," he said.
A major source of federal money is Title 1 grants for schools with large numbers of impoverished children.
Among area school districts, David Douglas has the largest percentage of low-income high schoolers. Neighboring Parkrose and Centennial school districts are close behind, followed fourth by PPS.
Despite general uncertainty in federal financing under the new administration in Washington D.C., Wiltfong said he hasn't heard of any plans to cut Title 1 money.
Since Measures 5, 47 and 50 changed the property tax revenue system in Oregon in the 1990s, the state, rather than local governments, has taken a significant role in school financing. It uses a complicated weighted formula to calculate each district's needs. The state also takes into account the amount of local tax the districts already received before distributing the money gathered from across the state.
What value are taxpayers getting?
A quick look at graduation rates shows that the West Linn-Wilsonville School District appears to offer the most tax dollar value in the Portland area. The district south of Portland spent the least among the 11 districts around Portland included in the Portland Tribune analysis — just $9,685 per pupil — but graduated the highest percentage of its students — 93 percent in 2015-16.
Of course, education is more complicated than making widgets and there are differing opinions on what constitutes success.
Wiltfong notes that by the time Oregon public school students reach 12th grade, they have had almost a full school year less instruction time than Washington public school students.
"Clearly, we need more money. Even the Legislature will attest to that," Wiltfong said. He added that this will not happen without changes to revenue. This could come in the form of tax system reform or additional taxes, neither of which seems politically feasible soon.
Oregon has a Quality Education Commission that extensively researches where the state could best put its money for better educational outcomes for its Quality Education Model. It also puts a figure on how much the state would need to accomplish its goals, which this year was about $1.8 billion more than the approved biennial budget.
"I'm not a fan of just throwing more money into the pot," Wiltfong said. "I think we need to be strategic."
The Oregon Department of Revenue calculation for per-pupil funding is each district's general fund, special revenues (usually federal grants) and supplies costs, divided by the number of students. It does not include construction funds, such as PPS' major school improvement bonds.
Some districts with large property holdings are funded entirely through local taxes, such as the Neah-Kah-Nie School District on the North Oregon Coast. Other districts with small property holdings rely entirely on state funding.
View the data for yourself in our spreadsheets.