Last Friday the Portland Public school board, after receiving a lot of heat from parents and health experts for planning to eliminate physical education in elementary and middle schools, said that they had taken that plan off the table, and instead would apply for federal stimulus funds, reducing the $19 million needing to be cut from next year’s budget to $4 – $5 million, and leaving the decision to determine what else to trim to each individual school, which could include cutting music or art programs. Cutting PE would have only trimmed an estimated $6 million from the budget, anyway, still leaving a major deficit.
They are banking on these federal funds to balance their budget. What if the federal dollars don’t come through? Senate Republicans particularly are adamant about holding the line and not increasing the federal debt beyond where it already is. School board member and budget director David Wynde said on KGW’s Straight Talk Saturday that with the influx of federal dollars, schools “should” have enough for at least a part time library person and PE. The “should” came across as political hedging, and gave an indication he may not believe those federal funds will indeed be available.
The PPS have already tapped into their reserve fund to the tune of $16 million, but when Gov. Kulongoski earlier this year said there must be additional cuts for the 2010-11 school year, the budget the PPS had devised suddenly lost $19 million in state funding. This number is likely to change again, since Oregon’s unemployment rate remains above 10% and revenue figures are continuing to decline. There is no indication of what Plan B might be should the federal money not be available or if it means the PPS will return to the original cuts planned.
School board superintendent Carole Smith in June had also proposed eliminating 25 employees at central operations, and slicing Special Education and ESL programs, which could cost as much as 52 additional teachers, proving yet once again Portland is not as all inclusive as she likes to think she is, marginalizing those whose mental and physical abilities differ from the mainstream. In reviewing the budget, she has only considered pay freezes for employees, but the teachers’ union will likely block this for educators, leaving executives and administrators as the only ones who would be impacted. What is not clear is how many positions are currently held by executives and administrators, and if the district could do just fine without them to begin with. Many private companies have had to increase productivity with fewer workers, and it is time that school districts do likewise in positions that do not impact students and education.
If the federal funds come through and if PE is retained, this is good for students to gain and maintain some measure of health in their days which they may not otherwise obtain, and will also give them an outlet for releasing the excess energy young children often have. But these funds will retain only one program, and from Wynde’s statements on Straight Talk, art and music programs may be determined by the individual school principals to be the programs to eliminate. It is common to find students who are not book learners, but who do excel when given a paintbrush or a guitar. Even for those who are traditional scholars, exercising the right side of the brain once in a while keeps them focused and curious to learn more, providing a well rounded education.
The PPS board takes up this issue tonight on the revised plan, which is likely to pass, but remains a huge gamble based on an uncertain economic request. It should be the mission of the school board to take proactive measures on balancing budgets, not just for this coming year, but for the years ahead, aimed at reducing front office and main office personnel, saving for potential future funding shortfalls, and respecting our children, ending the use of them as political pawns.