Willamette Week, Wednesday, March 27, 1996

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Mayor Katz's so-called $9 million "bailout"

  • He got his three wishes, but Superintendent Jack Bierwirth still needs a miracle.

    By Matt Buckingham

    Once upon a time, Superintendent Jack Bierwirth rubbed a genie's lamp and his three wishes came true.

    Wish No. 1: Mayor Vera Katz announced last week that the city would give Portland Public Schools $9 million to help pull the district through the most serious budget crisis in its 144-year history.

    Wish No. 2: District and union negotiators reached a tentative agreement on a new teacher contract, narrowly averting a strike vote that could have emptied Portland classrooms as early as April 5.

    Wish No. 3: Katz convened a school summit of top educators, corporate executives and community leaders to raise even more money for the public schools and find a permanent solution to the district's funding woes.

    So why are Bierwirth and Portland Public Schools right back where they started-with no money and the prospect of 500 layoffs next year?

    Well, first of all, Mayor Katz's so-called $9 million "bailout" was really no bailout at all.

    Here's how $9 million equals $0 million: The first $2 million of the bailout was money the district already expected; it will pay for school police and junior varsity athletics next year. The district will have to spend another $2 million of the city's money to keep those programs in 1997-98. That leaves $5 million, right?

    Well, guess what: Two days after Katz announced the city's $9 million gift to the schools, the district and the teachers union settled the contract dispute over raises. And, no surprise, those raises will cost exactly $5 million more than the district's last offer. It was as if the school board had walked into a car dealership and the salesman knew exactly how much money it had in its wallet.

    In that respect, one could argue that Katz's generosity couldn't have come at a worse time.

    "All this does is remove one of the clouds over our head-the teacher strike," Bierwirth says. "It doesn't take care of the cuts we're planning next year, nor do we have a long-term answer for school funding."

    OK, so the union squeezed the district for all it was worth. What about the summit? Business and community leaders are going to come to the rescue with more money, right? Well, maybe.

    Chairwoman Bev Stein of the Multnomah County Commission announced that she would recommend a $1 million to $1.5 million grant from the county to preserve the district's anti-violence and drug- and alcohol-education programs.

    But even after a two-and-a-half-hour summit meeting behind closed doors, funding commitments from the business community equal the last four digits of the summit campaign's new toll-free telephone number: 1-800-290-0000.

    Business leaders talked about the need for a long-term funding solution for the Portland schools as well as an immediate answer to next year's budget cuts. They supported developing a long-range funding plan and recognized that such a campaign would require financial support from business, Bierwirth says.

    "There was a sense from the business community that we need to get serious about this fast," he says. "I haven't heard that kind of commitment to the schools in the four years I've been here. Nobody signed in blood or put cash on the table, but I didn't take those commitments as mere rhetoric."



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