Story by Jesse Meisenhelter
Photos by Jonathan Schell
Grant High School Principal Vivian Orlen was heading back to Portland on Spring Break from a family trip to Mexico when she got the call. It was the Portland Public Schools director of high schools calling and he wanted to warn Orlen that next year’s budget had some bad news for Grant.
After spending the winter battling cancer and dealing with the school’s hazing incident, Mexico was supposed to provide her with some peace of mind. But 2,000 miles hadn’t been far enough to remove her from one nagging fear.
“In the back of my head, I had been worrying all break, preparing for as many five staff cuts and planning Grant’s path for adjustment,” she recalls. “When I heard the number 10.3, I was just stunned.”
District officials say they have a $27.5 million deficit and that’s going to mean the loss of approximately 110 jobs. Also on the chopping block are athletic programs, special services such as bilingual translators and the entire Outdoor School program.
For years, PPS administrators have had to deal with drastic cuts that have pared back programming for years. But this year’s budget is causing such an uproar because high schools across the district are grappling with whether there’s enough funding to provide students with the basic graduation requirements. Grant faces the biggest cut of any of the high schools.
What makes it more difficult is that schools are already operating on bare-bones budgets. It’s gotten to this point thanks to a series of state tax-limitation measures in the 1990s that crippled the funding of public education. Measure 5, 47 and 48, reduced the revenue from property taxes and made state funding reliant on constantly fluctuating revenue from income taxes.
Increased healthcare costs for teachers, staff and administrators has pulled the amount the district gets from the state down further. Add a poor economy to the mix and all these factors combine to create a dysfunctional system for funding public education that’s impossible to fix in one place.
Since she got the news, Orlen has gotten the cut down to 7.3 positions and she is trying to maintain her vision for the school. But that’s tough to do with a 15 percent reduction in her staff. A new statewide policy complicates matters. Teachers are limited to having 180 students, roughly 20 more than teachers have now.
Cuts include: two teachers from the Spanish language program; three of four security guards; and reductions in health, the library, physical education, English, drama, science, counseling, art, and business.
A few special programs intended to reduce the achievement gap, such as freshman taking two English classes, will remain.
In many cases, it’s usually required that teachers with lower seniority are the first to get cut. But because cuts are so deep this year, Orlen has implemented the union contract in order to protect the younger and most vulnerable teachers.
But these protections for Kristy McCarty (art), Dylan Leeman (English), Robert Fisher (Spanish) and Catherine Kurz-Smith (counseling) will still be in jeopardy this summer when district bumping occurs. It’s one of Orlen’s biggest fears, but she is also worried that her consolidated budget released this summer may not be large enough to cover basic paper, ink and art supplies.
District authorities say there’s not much more they can do.
“People have been saying what can we do without for 20 years, so the obvious stuff is long gone,” says David Wynde, the deputy chief financial officer and a former Portland School Board member. “There are important things being cut in this budget and we know that. But there isn’t enough money to do all the things we need to do.”
A few days after the cuts were announced, Orlen was in a meeting at the district’s central office. She was wondering about Grant’s future when she saw several employees walking by with yoga mats tucked under their arms. Others were heading out the door for long lunch breaks.
“Our schools feel like an emergency room trying frantically to save as much possible and there I saw people doing yoga,” Orlen remembers thinking.
Wynde says the cuts are affecting everyone.
“Psychologically, it’s easier for all of us to devalue a person or a program that’s being cut because it makes it easier to come to terms with losing it,” Wynde says. “But really none of it is alright and all of them are important.”
But apparently, some at the classroom level feel like more can be cut in administration. For example, while Superintendent Carole Smith did make cuts, there are still a number of high-salaried deputies who will remain on the payroll.
Teachers, principals and classified staff across the city have publicly wondered how come there can’t be more cuts at district headquarters. But while schools have to eliminate $10.4 million in staffing, the district is eliminating $9.5 million.
“I feel an enormous personal responsibility in the decisions I make for the students at Grant High School,” Orlen says. “I take it very seriously. It’s the human loss that’s really tormenting me.”
Orlen isn’t going to stop fighting to save teacher jobs. She’s up at 2 a.m., rechecking numbers. She’s barely eating because her focus is on improving things for students in the midst of the cuts. And she’s meeting constantly with principals from around the district.
Those meetings have paid off. Orlen recently received word that her lobbying saved Grant three positions, taking the FTE cut down to 7.3.
Orlen says her husband jokes that her cancer-free diagnosis that came a few weeks ago was directly related to the budget cuts. The stress of the budget has been so intense, it killed the cancer, he figures.
For teachers, though, the adjustments and one-time fixes aren’t enough. History teacher Don Gavitte has seen too many cuts in his 11 years at Grant. Now, it’s gone too far.
“I have clenched my teeth, bit my tongue and crossed my fingers but getting news that we were being cut again and cut so deep made me realize I am done cooperating,” he says.
Along with other teachers, students and supporters, Gavitte is helping organize the “Get UPSET” movement. UPSET stands for Underfunded Parents Students Educators Together. The group has gone viral, picking up approximately 1,000 members already. They are planning a march on May 11 with enough people to fill Pioneer Courthouse Square.
“If people think it’s not the time to be risky, then I want to know when that time is,” says Gavitte. “If a lot of well-respected people put their reputations on the line, then people will listen and that’s precisely what I am doing.”
The movement has taken root.
Senior Jackson Somerville worked with Grant’s leadership class and started a letter-writing campaign. Junior Paul Wells founded “Students on Strike,” a group intending to shut down PPS headquarters in protest on May 1. Junior Gaelen Snell wrote an opinion piece that appeared in The Oregonian last week and senior Lena Wright can be heard on OPB radio sharing hopes that Oregon will adapt a new taxing system.
“I feel like I have been running out of a burning building throughout my education. And I will be getting out just in time,” says junior Dylan Tingley. “But I have a brother who is in sixth grade. And while my family believes public education is the great equalizer and the cornerstone of our society, my parents are beginning to question whether they can send him responsibly send him to public school.”
The district is at a crossroads. About 85 percent of Portland residents don’t have kids in public schools. Statewide, views on changing the tax structure lean conservatively. And Oregon has the 39th lowest taxes in the country and no sales tax. So how do we fix the problem?
Some say adding a sales tax of about one percent to the purchases of electronics and other goods could more than balance the deficits faced in school districts statewide.
“We need to find a way of providing education funding that is stable and adequate,” says Wynde as he scrolls down the Facebook page of GET UPSET and clicks ‘attending.’
“We don’t want to hold on at this level and if people come together with a political will, we can get the changes the state needs,” Wynde says.
The School Board will vote on the current budget on May 14 at district headquarters at 501 N Dixon St.