Portland Plan Would Shorten Academic Year
While the school year in Oregon is already the shortest of any state's, the Portland public schools could cut more than a week from their academic calendar under a controversial cost-saving measure approved by the district's school board.
Like many other districts in Oregon, Portland is reeling from a state budget crisis that has forced lawmakers to hold two special sessions in an attempt to plug an almost $1 billion funding gap for the coming fiscal year. The legislature has proposed a total of about $312 million in overall education cuts, including state aid for literacy and mathematics programs for low-performing elementary school students.
The Portland school board on March 18 approved a budget offered by the 57,000-student district's interim superintendent. Among other measures, the spending plan would reduce the 2002-2003 school year by eight or nine days from the current schedule, freeze teachers' salaries, and increase class sizes.
The unanimous vote in the state's largest district came as hundreds of parents and educators crowded into the district's headquarters. Sharp debate is expected with the teachers' union, which must approve the plan.
Interim Superintendent Jim Scherzinger portrayed the plan as a one-year rollback that he said would help save the district $12.8 million in the next fiscal year budget, now set at $360 million. Mr. Scherzinger said he would recommend closing for fewer days if the legislature reduced its projected state education cuts.
Shortening the calender, he acknowledged, would likely put Portland schools out of compliance with state-mandated minimum requirements for instructional hours. The state department of education sets a minimum number of hours students must be in school for various grades; currently, Oregon students attend school an average of 171 days a year—a total already less than the roughly 180 days that most students around the country spend in school.
Under Oregon law, a district out of compliance for more than a year loses state funding.
Mr. Scherzinger said he has been frustrated with news reports focusing on the reduced number of school days and believes state policymakers must recognize that higher academic standards demand a fiscal commitment that has not been met.
"The conversation we're having in this state does not recognize the higher goals we have placed on our system," Mr. Scherzinger said.
Mr. Scherzinger said Oregon has dropped from having some of the highest taxes in the country a decade ago to now having some of the lowest. "There is simply inadequate funding," he contended.
Other districts around the state may also consider cutting back school days in an effort to save money, according to the state education department. Waivers of the requirement on meeting minimum instructional hours need the approval of the state board of education.
"Given the current situation, the state board will be looking closely at this," said Barbara Wolfe, a spokeswoman for the department.
John Hodge Jones, the former chairman of the National Education Commission on Time and Learning, a congressional advisory panel that issued a 1994 report arguing for a longer school day and year, said cutting class time for students would be misguided.
"It's a bad precedent," said Mr. Jones, a former district superintendent in Tennessee. The commission that Mr. Jones headed found that while the average school day lasted about six hours, most high school students spent only about three hours in academic classes.
Oregon lawmakers have been wading through a difficult budget process. A second special legislative session ended in early March with the Republican-controlled House and Senate supporting the use of education trust funds to make up for a shortfall in state revenue. ("Oregon to Vote on Ed. Trust Fund; Kitzhaber Vows to Fight GOP Plan," March 13, 2002.)
Gov. John A. Kitzhaber, a Democrat, has already signaled that a third special session will probably take place in June.
Included in the Republican plan to balance the budget is a ballot measure, scheduled to go before voters next month, that would convert an education endowment fund into a fund that would help to stabilize schools financially in emergency situations.
Gov. Kitzhaber is fighting the ballot measure because he believes it does not address the long-term fiscal needs of the state. The Oregon School Boards Association and the Oregon Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, also oppose the measure.
"It doesn't fix the problem; it just puts a Band-Aid on what we call a hemorrhage," said John Marshall, the director of legislative services for the school boards' association. "Our call has been to get to the real nuts and bolts of the issue, which is adequate funding."
But the chairwoman of the Portland school board, Debbie Menashe, said she supports the ballot measure because if it doesn't pass, the district will be forced to slash more from an already bare-bones budget. While she agrees long-term solutions must be considered, she said the current problems call for immediate action.
"These are horribly painful choices," Ms. Menashe said. "There are no good choices. From my perspective, we are already in a funding crisis. You don't cut eight or nine days out of your school year if you're not already in a crisis."
Richard Garrett, the president of the 3,500-member Portland Association of Teachers, said that with relations already strained between the district and his union, collective bargaining over next year's contract will not be easy. "Our relationship is bad, and the issues are tough," he said.
Vol. 21, Issue 31, Page 12