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Facing a $40 million budget gap, Portland Public Schools proposes using reserves and one-time funds.

COURTESY PHOTO: BETH CONYERS, PPS - Portland Public Schools plans to use one-time money and dip into reserves to fill a $40 million budget gap. Pictured: Cheryl Proctor, deputy superintendent of instruction and school communities for Portland Public Schools and Guadalupe Guerrero, PPS superintendent, talk about plans during an April 28 media roundtable discussion.After warning of a heavy decline in student enrollment that would lead to some schools losing teaching positions, Portland Public Schools now plans to use one-time funds and dip into reserves to lessen the blow.

A proposed $1.87 billion 2022-23 PPS budget contains fewer teaching position cuts than initially planned. School district leaders said Thursday, April 28, during a roundtable conference with media that while the district will likely shed roughly 90 positions, that's far fewer than the nearly 180 initially anticipated. Some of those positions represent staff who will retire or leave the district for other jobs.

"The district's expenses continue to outpace revenue," PPS Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero said. "Therefore, we've made a calculated recommendation to use $40 million of the district's rather healthy level of reserves that we've built out to balance next year's budget."

That $40 million is the budget gap PPS faced due largely to an 8% decline in student enrollment, meaning roughly 3,400 fewer students since the start of the pandemic. Oregon school district funding is determined by the number of students enrolled.

A proposed budget presented to the Portland Public Schools Board of Education earlier this week notes PPS plans to use one-time federal money from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) and state Student Investment Account (SIA) to try to preserve student support services while lowering class sizes and expanding summer school programs, among other things.

Guerrero and Cheryl Proctor, deputy superintendent of instruction and school communities for PPS, said no licensed PPS teacher would be laid off, but some staff may have to be reshuffled to other school sites to account for fewer students at some campuses.

The Portland Association of Teachers, the union representing PPS educators, has criticized the district's plans, noting class size thresholds were already high. Cutting staff at schools where student enrollment is expected to drop, particularly at the elementary and middle school levels, would lead to larger class sizes at a time when kids need more resources to make up for lost learning during the pandemic.

"We know that our students' needs are greater than ever, and our schools need MORE staff and support next year, not less," an April 6 message from the teachers union president, Elizabeth Thiel, stated.

Proctor said class size thresholds have already been adjusted to address those concerns. PMG PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - PPS administrators gather for a media briefing on the 2022-23 budget. Pictured left to right: Renard Adams, Cheryl Proctor, Guadalupe Guerrero, Claire Hertz and Nolberto Delgadillo.

"First thing we did was lower our class size maximums, so we were able to retain additional staff," Proctor said during the April 28 briefing.

The union also criticized PPS for not reducing central office staff to save money. Freddie Mack, head of communications for PPS, confirmed he is currently trying to add about 10 new employees to his team. Other administrative departments are also looking to bolster staffing for the next school year, but the latest budget proposal notes $7 million in savings were identified from the central office.

Teachers had also questioned whether the district's enrollment projections were accurate, noting many families might opt to return to PPS or enroll for the first time after waiting to do so during distance learning.

Renard Adams, chief of research, assessment and accountability for PPS, said the district has no reason to doubt its enrollment estimates.

PPS is among the school districts in Multnomah County that have seen a marked decline in student enrollment over the past five years. Portland State University's Population Research Center previously told Pamplin Media Group that an overall declining birth rate in the county has contributed to the decline in school enrollment.

Other factors — like a boom in online charter school and private school enrollment during the pandemic, combined with the rising cost of living and shortage of family housing in Multnomah County that has priced many families out — could also play a role.

The school board is expected to approve a budget in late May.

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