A woman holds a sign in Spanish to protest proposed cuts to elementary Spanish instruction at a Portland School Board workshop Jan. 21. (Portland Phoenix/ Jordan Bailey)
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Because of the disruption caused by the coronavirus, the superintendent of schools has dropped a plan to reconfigure the city’s public elementary schools from the proposed school budget. 

The plan would have eliminated 20 classrooms and 20 full-time teachers for a savings of $1.3 million that would have been invested in ways that support the School Department’s equity goals. Superintendent Xavier Botana said he would delay the proposal until the 2021-2022 school year.  

“In light of the uncertainty around COVID-19, given the questions that we have all heard about the elementary reconfiguration and recognizing that it is unclear whether we will be able to have the level of substantive community dialogue that we would need to have around the elementary reconfiguration proposal, I have decided to withdraw that recommendation for this year’s budget,” Botana said at the March 12 Finance Committee meeting, the last one before budget meetings were suspended indefinitely.  

“While I’ve always acknowledged it would be challenging, until today I felt it was possible to do so, but I can no longer provide that assurance,” he said. 

While the reconfiguration would not have closed any schools, it would have redistributed classes among the eight elementary schools so that all pre-K through second-grade classes would be held at four school buildings, and all third- through fifth-grade classes would be held at the other four. The resulting demographics at each school would more closely match the demographics of the district as a whole, currently at 53.1 percent white and 46.9 percent students of color. 

The $1.3 million in savings would have been used to address the achievement gap for disadvantaged students, including investments in curriculum expansion, support for students with disabilities, expansion of pre-kindergarten, and provision of a court-ordered plan to support English language learners.

The superintendent’s proposed budget scraps plans in the original budget to hire the equivalent of seven full-time English-language-learner teachers, an occupational therapist, a psychologist, a resource room teacher and an adult-ed teacher. It also drops plans for providing pre-K transportation. 

At $122.6 million, the new budget is $300,000 more than the budget as originally proposed, but is still within the 3 percent growth cap requested by the City Council. 

Board member Emily Figdor said she would propose amendments to eliminate the School Resource Officer program – which has come under scrutiny in a debate over the use of police-worn body cameras in schools – to free up funds for some of the previously proposed investments that were cut out of the budget. 

“I greatly appreciate the work that the superintendent has done with the police chief over the last few months in figuring out I think a workable solution on body cams, but given that we don’t have the key support staff that we need, given the ratios that we have, I can’t see the continued investment in SROs,” Figdor said. “I also find the program fundamentally problematic.”

She said she would also consider proposing additional cuts to athletics or going over the 3 percent growth cap to pay for the equity investments. 

“As I see it it’s our job to say what our students need and it’s clear that our English language learner and special-ed students need these increased investments so I feel obligated to put them back in the budget,” she said. 

Investments that remain in the superintendent’s new proposed budget include expansion of pre-K by two classrooms and increased support for students with an autism spectrum disorder, as required by law, with a new special-ed teacher and five special-ed educational technicians. 

In addition, curriculum expansion would still be partially funded. Miranda Fasulo, executive director of budget and finance for the schools, said cuts would be made in curriculum materials, assessment, professional development contracts, and investments in classrooms to support expansion in phonics and illustrative math. 

The new budget retains the proposal to eliminate fourth- and fifth-grade Spanish, which would cut nine part-time teaching positions – the equivalent of four full-time positions – for a savings of $257,000. Fasulo said elementary school principals identified Spanish instruction as a priority for cost-reduction. 

Without these reductions, she said, no curriculum scale-up would be possible and reductions would have to be made elsewhere to cover the required increases in autism spectrum disorder support. 

The Finance Committee was scheduled to hold a public hearing on the budget March 16 and a vote on its recommendation to the School Board March 30, but these have been postponed until further notice.