Parkrose Schools ponder budget predicament

Find out what steps the school board is considering to balance next year’s budget – and discover why Parkrose isn’t in as bad financial shape as some districts …

Parkrose School District Superintendent Dr. Karen Fischer Gray outlines the budget shortage facing their schools.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Like all Oregon school districts, the economic downturn is challenging educational boards to balance their budgets with reduced resources.

Schools in outer East Portland have the additional burden of providing a quality education for a growing number of children – including students who come from many different cultures.

We checked in on the Parkrose School District, at their April 8 meeting, to learn how they’re approaching their fiscal responsibilities.

Parkrose School District Superintendent Dr. Karen Fischer Gray, speaking to members of the Parkrose PTA, said she’s been meeting with parent groups and teachers, discussing the school district’s budget.

“I’m letting people know what we’re going through, related to the budget, before we make any decisions,” Gray said. “I’m listening to what they feel is important to keep, in our schools, and what may go away. We’re doing this before our April 27th school board business meeting.”

And, in her discussion with budget committee members, school board members, parents, and community folks, everything is on the table, Gray stated. “The fact is that our budget is seriously underfunded.”

Dealing with a shortfall in the millions
Parkrose Schools runs on a $31 Million budget; however, Gray noted that the problem is that they’ll be coming up about $5 Million short this year.

While they expect to receive some “Federal Stimulus” dollars, those funds are earmarked for innovation, not for saving current programs. The State Fiscal Stabilization Funds [SFSF funds] can be used to backfill the budget shortage.

“The picture is fairly bleak,” Gray said. “But, there are some things in our favor. The budget is balanced for this current year, 08/09.”

She said they’ve already drawn $1.4 Million from the district’s contingency funds to “backfill what we didn’t get from the State. “We’re OK this year; we’re not OK next year.”

Gray said there are three “buckets” of State money set aside for schools: The Education Stability Fund,the Rainy Day Fund, and the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund. “The governor promised to spend the Education Stability Fund 20% for 08-09, 40% for 09-10, and 40% for 2010-2011.

“But there is talk that the Governor will not spend any of the Rainy Day Fund on education,” remarked Gray, “and that he’ll use it for Public Safety and Human Services. We have already been given the SFSF money, and the $5.4 to 5.9 billion for the 09-11 biennium is all the money the State is going to get. This is not good news for education.”

Superintendent Gray enumerates the programs and features parents say they want to retain in Parkrose schools.

What to cut?
While the school board doesn’t want to increase class size or cut programs, and seeks to operate for the full school year, said Gray, “something will have to change if the board has to cut $5.7 Million from the budget.

“We want to maintain integrity in our educational programs – it’s what’s right for the kids. This includes keeping arts, music, and physical education and sports. While we are going to support and protect these programs, some things will have to take cuts. We have to come in with a zero-balance budget. We can’t do deficit spending, like the federal government.”

To keep up with societal needs, the district needs to keep moving forward educationally by purchasing new educational materials, like books and technology, Gray noted.

Because the district set aside some of the Multnomah County I-TAX funding, it now has about $600,000 available to buy textbooks, in “transfer” funds separate from the general fund.

Personnel a major cost center
Ed Grassel, Parkrose School Board Vice Chairperson, pointed out, “85% of most of our school’s budgets – and up to 95% in some schools – are spent on staffing.”

Gray commented, “Our greatest resource is our experienced teachers. They have served us, and our students, very well.”

Gray says there are two main money-saving options: Cutting teachers, or cutting school days.

But, she pointed out; some schools are already suffering this year, because they haven’t filled some vacant positions – placing a burden on schools that end up being short-staffed.

“Across the district,” Gray announced, “I’ve heard that parents want all-day kindergarten, good teachers, and professional development – ‘cut school days, not staff’.”

Grassel said that cutting a school day is equivalent of cutting 1-2 teachers per school day lost. “These days do not have to be in a row; and the days must be negotiated with the teacher’s association.”

State-mandated educational requirements don’t specify a certain number of school days, Gray said. “It is not days, but hours that are required. For example, 990 hours of education are required for high school students. We are over [the state minimum required] hours in all of our schools.”

Looking for ‘acceptable’ cuts
After listening to the long list of programs and costs that attendees said they would never want cut, we asked the group, “What are you willing to cut to balance the budget?

Parkrose PTA chair, Allison Newman-Woods replied, “We won’t cut. We are a strong community. We’ll raise money, we’ll find grants, and we’ll make it work. Our kids are worth it.”

Commenting on grant funding, Gray offered, “We don’t want to bring in a brilliant program, paid for by grants, and have it fall off the cliff in two years.”

But the Superintendent added, “If we could freeze all salaries, that would save around $600,000 – is that a direction to go, instead of losing seven teachers? We’ll keep having conversation with the teachers’ unions. I can cut staff tomorrow – but I don’t want to. One classroom at Sacramento Elementary has 36 students. When it comes to teachers and specialists, we just don’t want to cut.”

While pondering the question, Grassel said that one of the most important questions to keep in mind is, “What cuts have unintended consequences?” He added, “The last 10% of the cuts is the hardest!”

Share your thoughts May 8
Superintendent Gray and the school board want to hear from the community. They’re holding a Parkrose School Budget Forum on May 8 from 3:00 p.m. until 5:00 p.m. in the District Office Board Room, 10636 N.E. Prescott Street.

Or, if you have ideas to share, send an e-mail to Gray at; she reads them all and responds promptly.

© 2009 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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