Critics say the 2018-19 Portland Public Schools budget is too light on details but most board members approved it anyway on faith in the new superintendent.

SCREENSHOT: YOUTUBE - Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero delivers his budget Tuesday, June 12, to the Portland Public Schools board. The first budget of Portland Public Schools' new superintendent prioritizes teacher salaries, curriculum development, software upgrades, racial equity measures and strategic planning.

It didn't make everyone happy, but the PPS board did approve Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero's budget for the next school year, setting the stage for the changes he wants to make.

"This year symbolizes a first step toward a brighter future for PPS," Guerrero wrote in his budget message, adding in his comments to the board Tuesday evening: "We have a lot of ground to make up. This is just the start."

The $1.4 billion 2018-19 budget of the state's largest school district includes a $655 million general fund budget. The rest is in school construction bond funds, grant funding and other dedicated expenses.

Guerrero has a lot to prove and many high expectations to meet. He started Oct. 1 after two years of leadership churn in the district and has promised to move the needle on a wide range of intractable problems in the city's schools.

Though many on the board felt the proposal lacked enough detail, six members of the board voted to approve the budget. Outlier Paul Anthony, representing north-central Portland, sharply criticized the proposal for being insufficient on several levels.

"The buildings will continue to decay," Anthony said, complaining of cuts to maintenance staff. "I'm afraid after two years of disruption around this we're still going to be putting children's health and safety at risk."

The Community Budget Review Committee, a citizen's oversight body, submitted a letter noting several concerns about a lack of detail in the superintendent's plan.

"Though we respect the expertise of district staff," reads the letter, "without clear and thorough information, it is challenging, if not impossible, to fully understand and assess proposed budget changes."

The board majority seemed to echo that sentiment, but many said they have enough confidence in the district's leadership.

"I'm willing to take a leap of faith," said board co-Vice Chair Rita Moore. "This is a foundational year…. We need to build a foundation to support the house and that's what this budget is doing."

Here are some of the top takeaways from the PPS budget for next year:

Teachers will be paid more and there will be more of them — but maybe not everywhere

The district plans to employ three dozen more teachers than this school year. There will also be more school support staff, including behavior support specialists and materials.

As each school works with the new staffing formula, there are some schools that have been vocal about not having enough school staff planned for next year. But Deputy Superintendent Yvonne Curtis explained that some teaching positions are being held in reserve for once it's clear how many students show up to the first day of school.

Guerrero said some of the new teacher money is allocated differently than previous years because his team is being more strict about following the formula.

"There was a lot of non-formula allocating going on … before," he said.

Administrative software upgrades

"We definitely need to get up to speed on our technology backbone," said the former San Franciscan superintendent. Among the software investments the district plans to make are: budgeting software (last year, there were $4 million in budgeting errors), human resources documentation, leave management, complaint tracking and student outcome data.

"We don't really have an effective way to track whether we are getting better," Guerrero said. He wants to add "score cards" for schools, district departments and even his own performance.

SCREENSHOT: YOUTUBE - Portland Public Schools Chief Academic Officer Luis Valentino explains the strategy for boosting curriculum support.

New curricula, though not a ton of new textbooks

Chief Academic Officer Luis Valentino said he is emphasizing "teaching the teachers" over buying new textbooks. The priority is to roll out the rest of a reading program, then district officials will shift to other core curricula.

"We're not yet finished with what we need to do around literacy and then on to math and then on to science to meet the next generation" Deputy Superintendent Curtis said, adding bluntly: "We don't have a core program."

Guerrero echoed this, suggesting teachers were struggling to teach a wide range of abilities in their classrooms without standards to meet.

"I see it in all of my walk-throughs. It's dire circumstances in some of our schools that don't have the basic materials," he said. "We can't get into the differentiation when there's nothing to differentiate."

Former board member Steve Buel did not like what he heard, though. In the only public comment of the late night meeting, Buel doused the optimism.

"The child-oriented initiatives started by the last board seem to have been misplaced," he said, noting cuts to librarians and reading specialists. Buel also criticized the superintendent for being too "corporate" in his attention to tests and data.

"You leave (out) a huge portion of what education should be about," he said.

The oversight committee is nervous

The Community Budget Review Committee, for their part, listed concerns about not enough data on outcomes driving budget decisions, skepticism over the new funding model for school staff, and worries that combining the Chief Financial Officer and Chief Operating Officer positions into a single deputy superintendent role will lack accountability.

The committee also urged the legislature to fully fund K-12 education and praised local voters for authorizing the Local Option Levy. The $84.1 million from that tax will fund about 800 teachers in 2018-19.

PERS costs loom large on the horizon

The 2018-19 budget will have a 3.9 percent rainy day fund. That will have to continue to grow to meet the looming retirement costs PPS is obligated to pay. The Public Employees Retirement System promised pensions that became very expensive once the Great Recession hit. Budget projections show the district will be on the hook for many millions of dollars as older employees retire.

Shasta Kearns Moore
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