Parkrose School District wrestles with State school funding cuts

…And, there’s a good reason they’re floating a building bond measure even now, they say. Find out what the future may hold for students, and residents, in the Parkrose area, in this candid interview with PSD Superintendent Dr. Karen Fischer Gray …

Although tough financial times are ahead for the Parkrose School District, its Superintendent, Dr. Karen Fischer Gray, says she’s confident it can still provide a good education.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
The David Douglas isn’t only outer East Portland school district faced with making tough choices for the coming school year. To the north, the Parkrose School District is pondering the same tough questions.

> See our article on the proposed David Douglas Schools budget: CLICK HERE.

Dr. Karen Fischer Gray, Superintendent, Parkrose School District, sat down with us to discuss the situation.

“We’ve been showing parents, staff members, and residents – what our budget will look like, based on numbers we’ve seen from the Oregon State Legislature,” Dr. Gray began.

“Part of our budget process is to collect input from all of our stakeholder groups,” Gray continued. “We have meetings with teachers, school board members – lots of them. We continue to try to get our community members to talk about the budget – it’s been very difficult to get people interested in that conversation at this time.”

Gray puts no blame on neighbors for not turning out in great numbers to participate in the discussion. “Everyone is busy, and for sure, everyone is worried, and feeling fairly powerless. Because of that, they don’t participate; perhaps some feel it doesn’t matter.”

Looking over the district’s budget, compared to proposed State pending, Dr. Karen Fischer Gray says “The shortfall would be a disaster”.

Says State’s budget spirals down
“We have had three years now of declining State funding. Two years ago, we cut about $5 million out of our budget. Last year we cut $3.5 million; this year we’re looking at the same kind of cut. Governor John Kitzhaber’s budget is woefully short [as of mid-March]; it really undercuts kindergarten through 12th grade education spending. It is the only educational budget in which the Governor is under-spending.”

Parkrose School District board members Ed Grassel and Dr. James Woods have trekked to Salem to talk with their legislative representatives and share their concerns, Gray pointed out.

By the numbers …
“In the current school year, the Parkrose School District general fund is $30 million. We are budgeting based on the $5.7 billion statewide funding level for 2012-2013, even though that the Governor’s proposed budget is $5.56 billion statewide. Right now, we’re not budgeting based on the lower number. We think that, when it’s all said and done, the Legislature will come up with a budget of the least by $7 billion statewide.”

If the lower figure should be budgeted by the State, we asked Gray about what the District’s contingency plans might be.

“To be honest with you, I can’t really think about what happens at that [lower] number. The shortfall would be a disaster; the kind we don’t know how to mitigate.”

The potential statewide educational budget estimates have fluctuated dramatically over the past two weeks, and still haven’t been finalized. School districts across the state have put together tables that demonstrate the impact of various levels of spending, Gray told us.

“There are three levels: $5.56 billion, $5.88 billion, and $6.28 billion, statewide,” Gray said. “Our educational organization uses the same formula all of the 197 Oregon school districts to make a point of the Legislature – at the lower level, we’re talking about cutting 49 days; talking about cutting 50 teachers.”

Gray said the District’s administration has been communicating with their staff and principals about the possible impending reductions. “85% of our money is spent in staffing, benefits, salaries, and wages – small cuts are not going to do it. School days cost about $100,000 a day across our district. If we’re $3 million short, [and if we handled the cut by reducing school days], that would be a 30 day loss.”

Superintendent Gray says their school district is required to hold a certain number of school days by the State, but isn’t given the money to do so.

District must meet total classroom hours requirements
To complicate the issue, schools can’t just “shut down” to save money; every school district must provide a minimum number of educational hours.

“A district can get a waiver from the State for two years – that’s two years total, ever. We did not use a waiver this year for our 10 days, because we were able to take it in unpaid holidays, and called two days back because of the snow days. We had agreements for that with our union. We only really lost, when all is said and done, four days of instruction. So, we’re doing okay, and meeting the law.

“But if we have to cut 20 days, we’ll definitely need to have a waiver from the State, and not be able to mitigate them. It is an interesting predicament: B eing required to provide a minimum number of school days, but not being given the funding for it.”

Savings account drained
As of July 1, the district will have used up its “Federal Stimulus” funding, Gray said. “We did a lot of really good things with that money. We’re trying to figure out ways to keep some of those excellent programs, and keep the people we hired. It is a conundrum. We cannot do ‘deficit spending’; we must present a balanced budget to our board on April 27.”

The Superintendent pointed out that their “ending fund balances” are spent out; money they put away from the Multnomah County “I-Tax” is gone. “We pinch pennies better than anyone else I can think of. We don’t have fat or pork in the Parkrose School District.”

Maintaining the qualities found in “Professional Learning Communities” will somehow be maintained, no matter the budget, Gray says.

Four principles guide budgeting
What guides their thinking while working on the budget is what Gray calls the “Four Initiatives”…

  • Instruction;
  • Standards and benchmarks;
  • Collaborative teaming; and,
  • Data analysis.

“Instead of throwing out lots of ideas and plans, we are doing very focused work in our school district. Over the last four years, we made academic gains at every level, and in every area. We know we are on the right track. The trick is, to be able to continue to fund professional development – to support the teaching staff for this work.”

We ask what will make it possible to continue in these tough economic times.

“We’ll keep focusing on doing a few good things well,” Gray responded.

“First of all, we have quality teachers. All the research tells us having quality teachers is ‘number one’. We also have quality classified employees, quality administrators, and quality support staff – and a high-quality school board.

“We also have a framework for teaching, called Professional Learning Communities. It encapsulates the four premises we’ve talked about. This system is ‘the recipe for student achievement’. It is about setting specific goals for children, and then using the data to change instruction. We’ll keep with this, because it works.”

Gray says she’s enthusiastic that the Parkrose Schools’ Measure 26 – 123, a capital construction bond should pass, because it doesn’t increase taxes.

Bond measure proposed
We asked Gray why, in this economy, the district is floating a school building bond measure – specifically, Measure 26 – 123 on the May 17 ballot.  CLICK HERE to open the district’s site promoting the measure.

Instead of burdening homeowners in the district with a new additional tax, Gray positioned the measure as a continuation of the district’s building bond that sunsets this year.

“Our current, 1994 bond – used to build our high school – is retiring in 2011. This gives us a fantastic opportunity to add technology – 21st Century learning equipment – to all of our schools. It also provides for heating, ventilation, and security upgrades for all of our buildings, which is very important for student safety.”

The bond will also build a new Parkrose Middle School. “Our current middle school opened in 1960; it is not a modern middle school. Prescott Elementary School was built in 1947. All of the others were built in the ’50s and ’60s.”

Says buildings were built in the days of cheap energy
“For example, Russell Academy is 1960s elementary school – constructed with acres of single-pane glass. These buildings were built in the days of really cheap energy. And the wear and tear on 50-year-old buildings is making them start to show their age.”

The district is looking into state and federal programs that promote energy-saving ideas that might back the price of the bond, and pay it off earlier. “We’re also looking at some federal ideas called the ‘Quality School Construction Bonds’ that are available through the State from the federal government that will bring the interest rates almost down to nothing on some of the money we would be borrowing, which would allow us to pay less on the bond.”

No increase in taxes
“The capital construction bond measure for which we ask is at exactly the same tax rate that people have been paying the last 17 years,” Gray emphasizes. “It’s a $63 million capital construction bond; $1.25 per thousand dollars assessed value – about $200 a year for most homeowners in our area. This means there is no raise in taxes.”

Asked how Portland Public Schools’ measures affect homeowners, Gray added, “This is not a ‘double whammy’ for people in Parkrose, because the tax paid in Parkrose stays in the Parkrose School District. We are not in Portland Public Schools’ district. You’re not paying taxes for both places.”

There’s been no organized opposition to the bond measure, Gray said. “A political action committee, called ‘Yes for Parkrose’, has volunteers who have canvassed 1,800 homes and talked with about 700 people. The district will need about 2,000 ‘yes’ votes to pass this bond.”

Asked to give the community her best “pitch” for the school district, Gray thought for a moment before responding.

“We ask for your support, to talk your legislators, community groups, and advocacy groups, so we can effectively advocate for money for our schools. This is critical. We also ask you to support our schools through volunteerism.

“The best thing you can do for your schools is to show up,” concluded Gray.

© 2011 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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