Schools fear the worst after Measure 97 fails

PPS could lose 600-700 teaching positions

Students cross the street for school in Portland, August 2016 (Courtesy: PPB)
Students cross the street for school in Portland, August 2016 (Courtesy: PPB)

PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — Last week voters rejected a $3 billion annual tax measure that was very likely to swell school districts’ coffers.

Now, the failure of Measure 97 means education leaders are looking down the barrel of a $1.4 billion deficit in the state’s general fund in the 2017-19 biennium.

For Portland Public Schools, the state’s largest district, that could mean between $60 million to $70 million in likely cuts, says board member Paul Anthony.

At this point, those numbers are speculation and PPS Chief Financial Officer Yousef Awwad says he expects the budget to remain the same next year.

“There are many variables that play in the budget,” Awwad wrote in an email. “At this point it is difficult to say what’s the impact on our budget, but I am very confident that we won’t have to cut $60 million in the next biennium.”

But Anthony says his prediction is based on information from the district’s contract budget director Ryan Dutcher and the Oregon School Boards Association.

If cuts of that magnitude came to pass in the district, it would be the equivalent of 600 to 700 teaching positions.

Anthony, who leads the board’s budget and operations committee and sits on the board of the OSBA, says he believes this next state budget cycle is going to hurt.

“It’s gonna be a bad year,” Anthony says. “It’s absolutely going to have an impact on kids.”

Anthony says after years of recession-era budget cuts, there’s nothing left to cut outside of the classroom.

“It’s very likely that we’re going to see class sizes go up. That’s where we’ve put all of our effort and really all of our financial resources for really 25 years now,” he says. “When there’s nothing else to cut, that’s where it’s going to have to come from.”

Anthony says the looming budget shortfall comes at a time of increased costs, in part due to state and federal unfunded mandates. This includes increased Public Employees Retirement System payments, mandatory daily physical education, and Measure 98, a general fund mandate passed last week that requires career-technical education and other programs designed to boost the high school graduation rate.

PPS board Chair Tom Koehler says the district will be lobbying the Oregon Legislature during the session beginning Feb. 1 to give them more flexibility.

“Schools are moving into a period of constrained resources with the failure of Measure 97. The governor, Legislature and stakeholders need to come up with a coherent plan to raise revenue,” Koehler said in a statement. “In the meantime, the Legislature needs to directly provide flexibility with unfunded mandates.”

Roger Kirschner, Portland’s director on the Oregon Parent Teacher Association, says businesses that defeated Measure 97 need to come up with an acceptable plan to provide more revenue to the state.

“They need to pony up to the bar as far as I’m concerned,” he says. “Currently they are not paying their fair share.”

Kirschner says the overwhelming success of education-related measures 98 and 99 — for career-technical education and Outdoor School — was probably because they created earmarks in the current revenue streams rather than asking for more money.

“People kinda want to have their cake and eat it too. They want good education, but we’re not really willing to pass any measure that would give the state more money to do that,” he says, worried about the example this sets. “Does every special interest have to carve out its appropriation at the state?”

Kirschner says even though the local economy is booming, he also believes local schools will be looking at deep cuts — though Oregon PTA and others will try to keep them as minimum as possible.

“It’s going to be an arduous legislative session,” he said.

The Portland Tribune is a KOIN media partner.