PPS stalls on spending to improve school safety
Despite the increase in school security concerns caused by a series of high-profile shootings, Portland Public Schools is not scheduled to begin spending approximately $5 million for safety improvements, which was approved by voters in May 2017, until late this summer.
That's more than two years after the funds were authorized.
The district notified parents of the construction schedule for the Secure School Project in a Dec. 17 email. The long timeline frustrates Morgan West, a Portland firefighter and the parent of three students at Beverly Cleary-Fernwood, a K-8 school in Southeast Portland. He also serves on that school's PTA safety committee. The funds are included in the $790 million Health Safety and Modernization Bond that was approved 19 months ago.
The district described the work to be done in the email. It includes installing "electronic access control systems," which includes video intercoms and electronic locks at main entrances. Other work includes: installing additional public address system speakers in hallways, gyms and external areas of schools that do not have them; adding new signs to direct school visitors to main entrances and requiring them to check in at the main offices; and building fences and gates at schools that need them.
"Student and staff safety is a primary concern for Portland Public Schools," read the email, which says work is expected to begin at multiple locations and continue through the 2019-20 school year.
West does not understand why the work cannot begin sooner. The district already has prioritized schools for the work. The "ranked school list" was presented to the school board last November. It lists Beverly Cleary-Fernwood as the No. 2 priority school in the Franklin/Grant high school cluster.
"This is not complicated work. The electronic access control systems are wireless, so you don't have to rewire the school to install them. Everything else is simple, too," said West, who has been following the process closely for the past 19 months.
In frustration, West sent an email to PPS Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero, several school board members and other officials on Dec. 14, the sixth anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history. Twenty children and six adults were killed by 20-year-old Adam Lanza in Newton, Connecticut. He also killed his mother before committing suicide.
"PPS has had five million dollars set aside to lock the front doors of their schools for years, but the contract to actually install the equipment hasn't been awarded," reads the email. "The money is there, it's just a matter of taking the time to spend it."
Nathan Havner agrees. He is a teacher in the Beaverton School District who has a child at Beverly Cleary-Fernwood, where he also serves on the safety committee. Although Havner understands PPS is the largest district in the state and has many competing needs, he thinks administrators have not prioritized the security work.
"It's not just an issue for Beverly Cleary, it's an issue for all schools," said Havner, adding that every school in the Beaverton district has received significant safety improvements over the past year.
Parkland shooting prompts other upgrades
Eleven months after PPS voters approved the bond that includes the security funds, a former student opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Maryland, killing 17 students and staff members and injuring 17 others before being arrested after he escaped the scene.
The Feb. 14, 2018, shooting prompted numerous schools across the country to increase security during the following summer break. Much of the work was covered by the national news media. By then, PPS had identified the improvements it wanted to make, but had not yet prioritized which schools would be worked on first.
"PPS Business and Operations leadership is also developing a process for school administrators, site councils and PTAs to make proposals for separately funded installations of security related equipment. The intent is to ensure proper districtwide coordination, equipment standardization and equitable application for security enhancements to all of our school communities," parents were told in a Sept. 21 email.
West and Havner are skeptical the district will ever complete the work. They fear the $5 million will be spent on something else, such as a new priority that emerges or helping to cover the cost overruns that have plagued renovation projects started with the $482 million School Building Improvement Bond approved by voters in November 2012.
Havner also criticizes how the district told parents about the construction schedule. It was included as one of five items in a PPS Pulse, the email newsletter the district regularly sends to parents. The subject line concerned the first and most prominent item, which was about $5,000 from singer Paul Simon and the Oregon Community Foundation for a new kitchen at a school that serves special-education students.
"The $5,000 donation was bigger news than the $5 million security program. I've talked to a lot of parents who didn't even see it was included," West said.
District says work being planned
In August 2018, the Portland Tribune reported on the time it was taking Portland Public Schools to spend the $5 million on safety improvements. The story, headlined "Portland schools not upgrading security," noted a consultant had assessed the district's 95 buildings but that spending had not yet been authorized for the bond-funded security upgrades.
The story prompted a response from Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero, who called the story "highly misleading," "inaccurate," and incomplete." Among other things, Guerrero said many schools already have "camera surveillance and buzzer-activated front door access."
He also said staff were required to wear ID badges and take annual student safety training, which includes knowledge of building lockdowns and lockouts.
"On top of this, we are in the initial phase of spending the $5 million in bond funds targeted for security, such as strengthening school building access, including providing security intercoms, access control and improved signage," Guerrero said in his response, which was published Aug. 28.
Three-and-a-half months later, the district told parents that bond-funded work will not actually begin until next summer.
The district has taken action on another issue raised in the story.
The school board approved a multiyear, multimillion-dollar contract with the Portland Police Bureau for nine full-time school resource officers. The district had not paid the city of Portland for such officers for years and had been provided only six part-time ones. The contract was still being negotiated at the time of the article.