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PTAs pressure school board to reconsider teacher cuts as PPS labor costs continue to rise.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Portland teachers hold signs denouncing planned staffing cuts during a school board meeting Feb. 22, 2022. Three months later, the Portland Public Schools Board of Education approved a tentative budget aimed at retaining teachers and bolstering support at schools with the highest needs.After months of criticism over plans to cut teaching positions, a nearly $1.89 billion budget for Portland Public Schools was approved Tuesday, May 24.

The spending plan was approved 4-1-1, with PPS school board member Julia Brim-Edwards opposed, board member Gary Hollands abstaining and student representative Jackson Weinberg unofficially voting "no." Board Chair Michelle DePass was absent.

The tentative budget, which includes what district leaders called "thoughtful compromises," is slated to be adopted by the school board in June. It will use more than $105 million in one-time funds, including $9 million to add mental health professionals, support middle schools, add support staff to Southeast Portland schools that will be impacted by school boundary changes and add education assistants as well as special education staff, among other things.

The school board and PPS leaders have faced mounting pressure from teachers and families to avoid cutting teaching staff, as students are struggling to catch up on lost learning due to the pandemic. Prior to Tuesday's meeting, the board received a letter from 30 different parent-teacher associations outlining staff cuts and detailing impacts to several schools, including increased class sizes.

"At a time when students need more support than ever, PPS is proposing reductions of 87 classroom teachers in the K-8 grades and five licensed (special education) teachers," the letter states. "We understand the budget is a complicated process but we also have heard varying information on how much money is available for next year."

PPS Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero jumped at the chance to clear up what he called "misinformation."

"The budget you are considering tonight focuses on emerging out of this global pandemic with a deeper, more complete school experience for our students. That's our goal," Guerrero told the school board. "We are putting more resources at schools with higher needs."

Superintendent Guerrero emphasized the district's financial quandary. PPS is responding to an overall 8% enrollment decline, or 3,400 fewer students since the start of the pandemic, and rising personnel and operations costs.

"Revenue is not keeping pace with the cost to operate schools," Guerrero said. "This is driven primarily by increasing salary and benefit costs."

To compensate, PPS plans to use about $49 million — roughly half of its fund balance — to preserve jobs.

District officials have repeatedly said no teachers will be laid off in the next academic year, but warned that could be a possibility in the future without a major infusion of new state funding. The upcoming budget includes temporary, one-time funds allocated to schools to offset the pandemic's impacts to students. Those funds likely won't be available again next year.

"When I read the PTA letter that says we need more resources in the classroom, it's sort of ignoring the trade-offs we're already making," school board vice chair Andrew Scott said. "I keep hearing we've got plenty of money, and I want to state factually, we don't."

He warned of a "catastrophic" situation if the district overspends its reserve money and becomes financially insolvent.

Still, cuts in the $1.89 billion budget that would mean fewer teachers and larger class sizes didn't sit well with educators, or board member Brim-Edwards.

"After the pandemic, I can't see having 31, 33 students in a classroom," Brim-Edwards said.

Angela Bonilla, incoming president of the teachers union, pointed to the recent adoption of House Bill 4030, which increased state-allocated education funding by more than $100 million. HB 4030 includes retention and recruitment bonuses for specialized educators.

Bonilla and other union members suggested the district has padded its central office staff while cutting teachers. According to records provided to the union by PPS, the number of high-paid administrators making more than $110,000 per year whose positions don't directly impact students has grown from 39 in the 2016-17 school year to 57 in 2021-22. SCREENSHOT - Portland Association of Teachers president-elect Angela Bonilla (left) and vice president Gwen Sullivan address the Portland Public Schools Board of Education during a budget meeting May 24.

"We don't need to spend more, we need to spend differently," Bonilla said. "We don't need to use one-time funds or tap into reserves to give students what they deserve."

The school board, acting as the budget committee, directed PPS staff to refine the proposed $1.89 billion spending plan to include more resources for middle school staffing and restorative justice coordinators, at the recommendation of the teachers union. On suggestion from board member Gary Hollands, the board also asked for a shift in spending to use general fund dollars instead of one-time funds for teaching positions.

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