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Parents, school board members at odds over Local School Foundations that backfill staffing shortages

PMG PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Beth Cavanaugh hands out Reform PPS Funding stickers to fellow parents at a school board work session Dec. 6. Cavanaugh is one of several who say the Portland school district's school foundations need an overhaul.Portland parents and some school board members want to overhaul a program that allows schools in wealthier areas to buy their way out of a teacher shortage.

Many schools within the Portland Public Schools system have a unique fundraising mechanism called Local School Foundations. Local School Foundations allow families to fundraise specifically for staffing needs at their local campuses, increasing the number of teachers or teaching assistants a school can hire.

LSFs have allowed Portland schools to bolster programming when state-allocated funding falls short, but critics say the program has led to inequitable funding and resources across the district.

"I'm not anti-fundraising. I think fundraising is a great way to improve schools," school board member Michelle DePass said Tuesday, Dec. 6 during a work session, but noted, "buying people leaves a really bad taste in my mouth."

"I would like to see a mechanism in place that allows the schools that need help to (hire teachers)," DePass said.

Julia Brim-Edwards, whose zone includes Southeast and a portion of Northeast Portland, agreed, saying parents should have a say in what they fundraise for, but PPS, not private fundraising, should cover needed staffing. Brim-Edwards suggested PPS do away with allowing foundations to raise money for staff at particular schools, and instead have funds go into one large pool to pay for district-wide staffing needs that state funding doesn't cover.

"I think right now we have a lot of examples of the school foundations purchasing educational assistants, however, other schools that rely on the district to provide them have open positions," Brim-Edwards said.

Parents who have long supported the foundations say they're necessary to make up for budget constraints that leave schools with too few teachers and support staff.

PMG PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - PPS board member Michelle DePass (front) listens to virtual input during a board work session on Local School Foundations. Clockwise, from left: PPS Student Representative Byronie McMahon, board members Amy Kohnstamm, Gary Hollands and Eilidh Lowery.Most board members agree the system needs to be changed, but Tuesday's discussion yielded little consensus on what aspects need to be revamped or how to get there.

Foundation data shows schools like Duniway Elementary, located on the Reed College campus in Southeast Portland's Woodstock neighborhood, raised enough money to hire an additional full time teacher and six educational assistants. Foundation money also helped partially fund a student support position. PPS staff note that only five percent of Duniway students qualified for free school lunch that year, compared to George Middle School in North Portland, where 56% of students qualified for free lunch, but there is no foundation to pay for extra teachers. George currently has at least four job openings for educational staff, most related to special education programs.

Fundraising dollars help whole district

The foundations are regulated by the school district. LSFs keep the first $10,000 raised, but a third of all remaining funds gets funneled to the PPS Parent Fund for distribution to other schools, based on need.

Proponents of the current system say it benefits the whole district, and that's reason enough to leave things alone.

Bonnie Zadeyan, a PPS parent, said foundation fundraising has become a necessity for her kids' school.

"Each year, parents are asked to contribute to the foundation in order to save our teacher fund," Zadeyan said. "We are raising funds to support the basic functioning of the language programs that PPS does not fund properly."

But even with money being distributed to schools without foundations, most campuses saw around $10,000 in distributions, which isn't enough to pay for extra staffing. Some schools with foundations saw six-figure payouts.

Beth Cavanaugh has volunteered for numerous school-related committees, including her neighborhood school's Local School Foundation. Now, she spearheads an advocacy group called Reform PPS Funding, aimed at transforming those foundations.

"I got involved with this advocacy work after being a parent in a school with very active foundation fundraising," Cavanaugh said. "At that time, my kid's school was hiring between two and three certified teaching positions each year. I started connecting with parents in other schools and learned this is not typical."

Cavanaugh notes less than half of PPS schools have their own foundations, and most large districts in Oregon don't allow fundraising for staff at a particular school. The Portland mom says the current landscape infuses a private school model into the public school system. Through public records requests, Cavanaugh crunched and compiled the numbers. Lincoln High School, the largest beneficiary of foundation fundraising, brought in close to $4.5 million from 2010 to 2019, according to data presented by Reform PPS Funding. The school received $300,000 in independent school foundation payments this year. Duniway received $337,300.

"I started to feel really uncomfortable with the idea that as a parent in a public school, our community could make the decision to supplement the staffing," Cavanaugh said. "I just didn't feel right about parents in a public school having the privilege to do that."

How it started

At the root of the problem is Oregon's school funding system.

PPS established school-based foundations in 1994, four years after Measure 5 passed in 1990. Measure 5 put caps on property taxes and changed how Oregon schools are funded, requiring state government to fund Oregon's schools with property tax revenue, rather than the majority of funding coming from local revenue sources.

More than 30 years later, Oregon now has one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the nation, with persistent complaints of underfunded schools.

"Oregon underfunds its schools dramatically, and while there have been lots of efforts to fix that over the years, they've plugged the hole. They haven't fixed it," PPS Board Chair Andrew Scott said, calling the current foundation practices well-intentioned, but "systemically racist."

No immediate changes were proposed for board consideration. The board's policy committee is expected to take up the issue again in coming months.

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