Portland Schools brace for large budget cuts

Emma Ambroziak / The Mossy Log

Portland Public Schools (PPS) are facing major budget cuts for the 2024-2025 school year. The cuts were announced in late February and a finalized version of the PPS budget is set to be released in late April. 

These budget cuts have drawn swift backlash from staff and parents as the $30 million cuts are sure to affect students in the classrooms of the 86 schools that make up the PPS system. 

“This means that over the next few years we will experience a reduction in staff, programs and services both in the central office and in schools. There is no way that we’ll not feel the impact of this situation,” PPS Interim Superintendent Sandy Husk said in a work session held on Feb. 20. 

The district claims that these cuts are due to increasing costs of labor, inflation, low enrollment and a lack of government funding from Oregon.

“The district blames the rising costs of labor, decreased enrollment, increased student needs and what it describes as insufficient investment by Oregon in K-12 schools,” a news segment by Fox 12 Oregon reported. 

The cuts will come from two places: $15 million from the central offices of the district and $15 million from school-based operations. 

While PPS has not said that teachers will be laid off, they have told the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) that there will be staff cuts in the central offices. Many of those staff members are “student-facing,” meaning that they work directly with students, though not at one particular school.

“Out of the proposed non-management, central office cuts, PAT members were told that 146 full-time positions — which are up for cuts or reductions — are student-facing. Another 25 are ‘possibly’ student-facing,” an article from Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) stated. 

Many of these staff members provide individualized care to students in need of accommodations, such as feeding teams, behavior specialists and analysts. That means that these students will be disproportionately affected by these budget cuts.

“These are out of the estimated 222 total full-time equivalents proposed central office cuts — nearly 150 are special education professionals,” OPB reported on March 6.

Several staff who are student-facing have already been informed that their positions have been either cut or changed before the final budget has been approved. 

Allisa Pollard, an occupational therapist within the district, was one of the staff members whose position was cut, as she was “unassigned.” At a school board meeting, Pollard spoke against the budget cuts.

“Pollard told the school board the cuts would directly impact employees’ abilities to implement free and appropriate public education for all students, which is required by federal law,” OPB said. “She similarly criticized cuts to programs that provide technological assistance and specialized physical education to students with disabilities.”

Students without individualized learning needs or disabilities will see changes in their classrooms as well. These could mean larger class sizes or cuts to library, art and physical education programs. 

These cuts come on the heels of the Portland teacher strike, which concluded in November 2023, and was historic for lasting three weeks and shutting down schools for 11 days. A contract agreement was reached at the end of negotiations.

“The new contract — ratified by union members and passed by the school board Tuesday — will cost about $175 million over the next three years,” a Nov. 29 OPB article said.

Now, PPS is looking to make cuts, as this increase in spending is tens of millions over what was budgeted for the next few years. 

“District officials in the fall projected roughly $130 million in cuts over the life of the teachers’ new contract — $10 million from this year’s budget, $41 million in the spring cycle for next year’s budget and $79 million in the third year,” OPB stated in the same article.

However, ratifying a contract that “we cannot afford,” according to Andrew Scott, a school board member for PPS in the OPB article, may not be at the center of the problem. 

“We cannot afford it because the governor and legislature have failed to adequately fund education in Oregon. Full stop,” Scott continued.

In fact, the Oregon government has come under fire for falling behind in education nationally. Oregon Live reports that according to a study done by Harvard and Stanford researchers, Oregon failed to make up for pandemic-related learning losses.

“Unlike in the 29 other states studied, Oregon students as a whole have failed to regain either reading or math skills, researchers found,” Oregon Live said.

This deficit is prevalent despite the $1.6 billion given in federal aid for pandemic relief to Oregon’s 197 school districts, which will run out by next school year.    

Oregon particularly falls behind in providing quality education for individuals with functional needs  or disabilities. Jay Buno, chief of student support services, explained at the school board meeting that Oregon caps funding for individualized needs, accommodations or education plans.

“Oregon gives districts money for students with special needs based on a weighted enrollment formula, but it caps available funding at 11% of the student body, a limit that doesn’t exist in most states. More than 7,400 Portland students are enrolled in special education this year — about 16.5% of the total student population,” OPB reported.

The reason these programs will particularly be affected by the cuts is that without governmental funding, PPS will have to bear something Buno argues is unsustainable. 

“Any additional investment in special education at this time without additional funding from the state will result in a cut to other essential services provided to students in PPS,” he said at the work session. 

Furthermore, PPS is not the only district to have to make cuts for the upcoming school year. The Salem-Keizer school district is in the middle of trying to cut $70 million from their budget, with only $30 million in cuts currently planned. The PPS budget will be finalized by late April or early May. There has been much controversy surrounding these cuts, with many pointing to systemic education issues as well as the decrease in support to students these cuts will bring, something that has already been lacking in education nationwide.

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