The Oregonian, Thursday, March 14, 1996, p. E2 3M-MP

Storm clouds gather over school budget

  • Portland board members prepare to cut next year's spending $15 million below current budget levels as various special interests rally to defend their turf

    By Alicia Di Rado
    of the Oregonian staff

    Political winds swirling around the Portland Public Schools are likely to hit gale force today when the district's school board is scheduled to approve its budget for next year.

    Deliberations are scheduled to begin at 5:30 p.m. at Cleveland High School, 3400 S.E. 26th Ave.

    The board will discuss plans to reduce its budgeted spending by $15 million, from $319 million this year to $304 million in 1996-97. At least $21 million must be cut in programs, though, because the district has added extra spending next year for employee salaries, special education and juvenile justice.

    Recent discussions spawned rancorous debate among parents, students, community members and school employees. People have spoken adamantly to protect athletics, magnet schools and other special programs.

    At the same time, the union representing the district's 4,000 teachers is demanding a settlement in its contract dispute and is asking for larger cost-of-living raises than district bargainers have offered. Teachers plan to demonstrate before today's board meeting.

    These aren't the most pleasant days for Superintendent Jack Bierwirth.

    "I'm not looking forward to this," Bierwirth said.

    Early reports, however, indicate board members will follow Bierwirth's suggestions on cutting the budget.

    According to Bierwirth's list of recommended reductions, several positions would be eliminated in departments ranging from public information to personnel.

    The number of vice principals would be reduced, many full-day kindergartens would be suspended, and more than 400 school employees would be laid off by seniority, or positions eliminated through attrition.

    District money for programs in certain schools - from the International Baccalaureate at Lincoln High School to business and marketing at Cleveland - would be reduced. In the case of a half dozen schools, that probably would end some special programs.

    That doesn't sit well with citizens who examined the districts budget and handed down recommendations. Most would prefer the district reduce its school year by six days to save about $6 million.

    "The only viable options are to reduce school days or cut positions," said J. Byron Kellar, a member of the review committee. "Eliminating special programs is like shooting yourself in the foot, because people then flee the district."

    However, according to state law, schools must provide at least 175 days of teaching.

    Kellar is concerned that class sizes will skyrocket if teachers are laid off. Better to trim back the school calendar, he said. A teacher or administrator earning $40,000 a year would lose $1,200 under that plan.

    Board member Carol Turner also worries about the number of teachers that may erode from Portland's classrooms - a gradual problem that isn't as evident as cuts in programs for gifted students or in sports.

    "People rally for programs such as athletics," Turner said, "but I don't see that same motivation for class size."

    Students and community members also plan to rally before the discussions.

    They will focus attention on an issue that has been gnawing at civic leaders: the effect of Oregon's school funding policy.

    Portland city officials plan to continue funneling to the school district money for police and sport programs, and they are likely to approve additional money for the district in the coming weeks. Some business leaders are exploring ways to help.

    "We're at a deciding point in the history of the public schools here," said Mayor Vera Katz. "They have been able to maintain a quality education and repel the flight to the suburbs. Once that starts, it's very difficult to reverse."



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