Portland School Board considers severe cuts in budget

With as many as 500 constituents looking on, the Board of Portland Public Schools voted 7-0 March 18 to close two elementary schools, establish the shortest school year in the United States, and make a series of cuts aimed at district employees.

Those cuts include an across-the-board cap of $600 a month for employee health care costs; no cost-of-living increase; elimination of management performance bonuses; increased class sizes; and a cut to the custodial budget that may open the door to contracting out custodial work altogether.

Though final revenues from the state won't be known until May or June, the board operated on the assumption that the district will get $36 million less than it needs to continue current service levels for the 2002-2003 school year.

About 300 custodians represented by Service Employees Local 140 stand to lose their jobs if the custodial cut leads to contracting out. The board made a $4.5 million cut to the custodial budget, but stopped short of an outright decision to contract out. That is a matter for current negotiations between Local 140 and the district. Union spokesman Bentley Gilbert said the union has agreed to accept a $960,000 cut in personal costs, but would refuse to absorb the entire $4.5 million.

"It's a false choice," Gilbert said. "We believe in living-wage jobs."

Gilbert points to the district's new $5 million "reserve fund" and $4 million it has budgeted for flexibility in labor negotiations as resources the district could use to avoid contracting out custodial services. Gilbert said a reserve fund is a good thing to have, but that it's not appropriate to start one in a year of severe cuts.

"Management is fixated on contracting out," Gilbert said. "They're not willing to take half a loaf if they think they can have the whole loaf." Gilbert said half a loaf, in this case, would be a compromise at the bargaining table, where custodians accept some cuts but keep their jobs.

Any contract with the union or with a private janitorial firm would have to be approved by the school board, and at least three members -Marc Abrams, Lolenzo Poe, and Derry Jackson - have spoken critically of contracting out. Local 140 has been in bargaining since February. Meanwhile, bargaining begins in May for the district's teachers, represented by Portland Association of Teachers (PAT), an affiliate of the Oregon Education Association. PAT's four-year contract expires June 30.

PAT President Richard Garrett said what the board voted on March 18 is no more than a "mock" budget. The district can't make the cuts called for in the new budget without bargaining, and the teachers, at least, plan to stand firm.

Garrett predicts bargaining for teachers won't conclude until late fall. Compensation issues are typically resolved last, he said.

"Members are telling us overwhelmingly that they won't take these cuts," Garrett said. Portland teachers are the lowest-paid of 14 school districts in the Portland metro area, he said, and the union already agreed to givebacks in the last two contracts. In 1994, PAT agreed to a salary freeze and it gave $8 million back to the district from its health insurance trust fund.

Now, the district can't even find qualified teachers at the starting salaries specified in the union contract. In March, the district asked the union's permission to offer new teachers wages at the third year of the salary schedule.

"There is a standard for the profession," Garrett said, "and we shouldn't underprice ourselves."

While the district and its unions go head-to-head over where, how, and how much will need to be cut, they agree on one thing: The responsibility of the state to provide adequate school funding.

Portland Public Schools spokes-man Lew Frederick points out that the school board has little power to raise revenues. After the passage of Don McIntire's Measure 5 in 1990, which limited property tax revenues in Oregon, the responsibility of funding schools shifted to the Legislature.

"Before Measure 5, we knew how much money we'd get each year, because it was based on the property tax base, not on a decision of the Legislature," Frederick said.

Oregon today has one of the lowest overall levels of taxation in the nation; only five states pay lower taxes overall. When unemployment rose substantially last year, fewer people working meant less income tax revenue for the state to pay for schools, prisons, and other priorities.

The amount the district will get from the state won't be known until after the May 21 primary election and a probable third special session of the Legislature expected to be called by the governor in May or June.

In a February special session, the Republican-controlled Legislature referred a constitutional amendment to voters that would take $220 million from a lottery-funded schools endowment to use during the current crisis. The measure is opposed by the Oregon Education Association and Governor John Kitzhaber, who said it is irresponsible. The fund was set up so that interest from the endowment would fund schools on an ongoing basis.

The Legislature has other options to raise revenues, including raising corporate income tax to the level paid by individuals, or raising income taxes on upper-income individuals.

Garrett said he met with Portland area Democrats in January and was told that the public won't stand for tax increases, and that they wouldn't be re-elected if they tried.

"I had the Democratic leader of the Senate telling me 'we'd never stand a chance if we raised taxes,' and she's supposed to be a supporter of schools," Garrett said. The union official disputes this analysis, and argues that there's wide public support for key public services like schools.

"The Legislature has been so extraordinarily timid, so afraid of raising even marginal taxes like on cigarettes," Garrett said. "Everybody's pointing the finger at someone else, and some are even pointing it at the public. But you need people to lead the public."

April 5, 2002 issue

Home | About

© Oregon Labor Press Publishing Co. Inc.