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Portland educators worried about district's plan to cut teacher positions

Elizabeth Thiel, president of the Portland Association of Teachers, said cutting positions would be detrimental to students who have so much need.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Portland Public Schools (PPS) is planning to reduce the number of teachers in the 2022-23 school year.

The move comes because of a projected enrollment drop next year. KGW spoke with the head of the Portland Association of Teachers about what it’ll mean for teachers and their students.

Tuesday night's school board meeting was filled with a lot of discussion about PPS’ plan to cut teachers next year.

One teacher asked, “Why should I stay at PPS?”

Another teacher, Angela Bonilla, who is also the president-elect for the Portland Association of Teachers said teachers need support and investment.

Elizabeth Thiel, president of the Portland Association of Teachers, was also present at the board meeting.

“I’m here today because while PPS has proceeded with cuts, there is still time to change course,” Thiel said to Portland Public Schools board members.

Thiel said about a hundred teachers have already been informed their position will be cut. The district has said it anticipates enrollment will be down next year. Funding is often tied to enrollment numbers, which means PPS projects funding may drop as well.

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“As of late last week, I was told it is still 65 elementary teachers and now it is 31 middle school teachers and a few other P.E. teachers at the elementary level,” said Thiel in regard to the teachers who have been informed they’ve been unassigned.

That does not necessarily mean those teachers are out of a job, but it does mean more uncertainty.

“They may be looking for other careers or they might stick around and wait and see if there's a position at a different school in PPS to take the place of someone who's retiring or resigning or leaving the district for other reasons,” Thiel said.

KGW reached out to the district for comment and received a statement that said: “As of [March 2], the reduction projections for teachers for the 2022-2023 school year is just under 89. It’s important to remember that these allocations are based on enrollment and funding projections. Every year we lose teachers to retirement, promotions, career changes, etc. We are hopeful that no teachers will be laid off as a result of declining enrollment and funding. As we proceed with the budget development process, these numbers will continue to fluctuate.”

Thiel said according to the district, the staff cuts would be because of lower enrollment during the pandemic. "Normally that's totally how we talk about funding, but things are more complex than that," she said. 

In her presentation to the school board Tuesday, Thiel cited updated state funding numbers. She said the district would be getting slightly more money.

The district receives money from the Student Success Act, teacher levy and arts tax. They are not based on enrollment numbers. 

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Additionally, according to the Oregon Department of Education website, PPS has received about $116 million in federal emergency relief money. 

A PPS spokesperson said because some of that money went to charter schools, the district received $99 million. 

That federal relief money came in three separate distributions that the state labeled ESSER I, ESSER II and ESSER III funds. The first amount of $7 million must be used or earmarked for use by September 2022, the second amount of $30 million by September 2023 and the third amount of $62 million must be used or planned for use by September 2024.

Thiel said cutting teacher positions would be detrimental to students who have so much need. A student who spoke at the school board meeting on Tuesday night described the school year as chaotic and said they had seen students fighting and teachers get hit as they tried to keep students safe.

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