Concrete Ideas for Saving the SUN Schools

By Jeff Cogen of Portland, Oregon. Jeff is the chief of staff to city commissioner Dan Saltzman, and a candidate for Multnomah County Commission. Learn more at JeffCogen.org.

In early July, I spent a morning at the SUN Community School program in Northeast Portland's Shaver Elementary School. I watched as Sara Vank, the irrepressible SUN School coordinator at Shaver engaged the large group of overwhelmingly poor, astonishingly diverse kids in a range of fun, educational activities. The mood in the room was upbeat and energized -- an amazing contrast to the stories Sara told me about these kids. Some of their peers were being recruited into gangs in fifth grade. Others had siblings involved in dealing drugs. The key difference for these kids -- the reason they're on a path to success instead of ruin -- is the support and guidance they got from the SUN program.

Over the past two months there has been a fierce battle over the fate of SUN Schools, our community's nationally recognized after-school program. SUN Schools are facing a huge budget cut from Multnomah County that threatens to seriously damage something truly rare: a cost-effective public-private partnership that enjoys broad community support. Not only that, SUN Schools provide young people with a safe place to be after school while boosting their academic and social success.

The proposed budget cuts come shortly after an independent evaluation showed that the kids in SUN Schools are thriving. Why would we slash something that gives our community such positive, proven benefits?

Granted, the County is facing a difficult budget climate and Commissioners faced tough choices. Does that mean the cuts were inevitable... forced on the County by relentless budget pressure? Well, no.

In fact, due to our resurgent economy the County had $47 million in unexpected revenue it could have used to keep the SUN Schools going, at least for another year. This would have allowed time for a thoughtful conversation with the many partners that make up the SUN Schools -- including the City of Portland, local school districts, non-profits and local businesses -- regarding how best to move forward with SUN.

The County chose not to spend its money to fully fund SUN Schools, and instead slashed is budget by $1.7 million, with only a few weeks to implement those cuts and no time to work collaboratively with its partners. That was a mistake. This hurts not only the kids served by SUN Schools, but the non-profits who partnered with the County to run these programs, who now face tremendous hardship and budgetary uncertainty while the County scrambles to figure out how to make these cuts.

But, the good news is that there is still time to change this decision. The program is reporting back to the County Board this Thursday to present options for moving forward. The County should reject cuts to the system and instead seek creative ways to keep the doors open. And there are at least 3 good options available for saving the SUN Schools:

1) Use half of the new 'BIT' stabilization fund

Maintaining adequate reserves is prudent. But this year, in addition to boosting the $17 million already allocated to contingencies and reserves (which was enough to retain the County's AAA bond rating) by $10 million more, the County also created a brand new 'stabilization' fund with $3.5 million. Half of the money from this extra reserve fund would be enough to fully fund SUN Schools - while maintaining just shy of $30 million in reserves/contingency funds.

2) Charge people who can afford to pay for SUN programs

A few SUN programs charge fees to those who can afford to pay, but most do not. By expanding the use of sliding-scale charges for SUN programs, we can raise revenue to help ensure the survival of SUN Schools, while allowing those in need to maintain access to the programs.

3) Get a bridge loan from the Children's Investment Fund

The Children's Investment Fund is one of the community partners that funds SUN Schools. Due to higher than expected tax receipts, and careful cost controls, the CHIF has resources available that it could loan to the County to fund SUN Schools.

Clearly, we have the means to save the SUN Schools. The real question here is whether we have the collective will to insist that our best social investments -- such as SUN Schools -- be protected. I've always admired our community's ability to make smart investments and focus on long-term benefits and solutions. The SUN Schools program fits perfectly in this paradigm, and it deserves our support.

Comments

  • John Capardoe (unverified)
    (Show?)

    Maybe the solution #4 would have been for you and your boss not to have voted for the Interstate UR district and others which cost County Services income, as well as various other tax breaks, that sucked the available funding for childrens programs out of the County as Bev Stein pointed out in 2000, so that Children's programs would not have to go begging, while developers pocket profits.

  • Don Smith (unverified)
    (Show?)

    Oh, SNAP

  • (Show?)

    Actually, John, I was working for Bev Stein in 2000 and led the fight to get the County's interests recognized in the creation of Urban Renewal Areas. I still don't believe that urban renewal areas should be allowed to take away the County's resources without the County's consent. But, rehashing that argument doesn't really help us much with the problem at hand: saving the SUN Schools today.

  • Ross Williams (unverified)
    (Show?)

    Jeff -

    Do you have the support of any of the commissioners for this proposal? Which ones?

    It seems to me the problem at the county has been that the commissioners don't create conversations that can involve citizens in constructive problem solving. Instead they throw out competing proposals and spend time on political manuevers with their staff on the 6th floor of the Multnomah Building.

    If this is a real solution, it needs to get 3 votes including at least one from the majority that cut Sun Schools to begin with. Unless you have that vote, throwing a proposal out in public is unlikely to be successful for the Sun Schools. The folks that need to own the solution are the people on the Commission, not people running for it.

  • (Show?)

    Ross, I disagree with your premise. While it is certainly true that the County Board needs to "own" the solution, we all (especially candidates) have a right and responsibility to weigh in on important community issues and help to generate community dialogue. We're lucky to have Blue Oregon which provides such great way of doing that. Jeff

  • Xander Patterson (unverified)
    (Show?)

    Ross, you're right that only the current commissioners can solve the SUN schools funding problem, but constructive suggestions from anywhere are helpful. It is also very useful (and all too rare) for voters to hear what candidates would actually do to solve our problems. I think Jeff's proposals, especially the first and third, are very reasonable. I hope the current commissioners are listening.

  • Amanda Fritz (unverified)
    (Show?)

    Why a loan from the Children's Investment Fund, rather than outright funding of the valuable SUN program using ChIF? And has the city/ChIF made the offer of either a loan or funding to the County?

  • (Show?)

    A loan from the Children's Investment Fund is possible because they have the money available now. An outright gift would be more difficult because those funds are committed to other programs in the next fiscal year, which is why they would need to be paid back. Neither the CHIF nor the City has made a formal offer to loan money to help SUN, though the City Atorney has said it would be allowable.

  • Gil Johnson (unverified)
    (Show?)

    Jeez, a candidate for office offers specific solutions to a problem and gets stomped on for not already being in office or having the current officeholders lined up.

    How does eating your own taste?

  • (Show?)

    Go Jeff Go! Creative and substantive ideas, ladies and gentlemen, is why Jeff Cogen should be on the county commission.

  • Amanda Fritz (unverified)
    (Show?)

    Thank you for your response, Jeff. Dan Saltzman recently announced that the ChIF money can be stretched to run another year, because the first year's money wasn't allocated as fast as projected. Since the fund wasn't planned to run an additional year, all the money can't yet be tied up for that last year. Couldn't you advocate now for ChIF giving that money to save the SUN schools? Wouldn't that likely be more attractive to the three County Commissioners who voted to cut SUN funding, instead of asking them to take on additional debt?

  • Ross Williams (unverified)
    (Show?)

    "we all (especially candidates) have a right and responsibility to weigh in on important community issues and help to generate community dialogue."

    Jeff -

    I wasn't questioning anyone's right, and certainly not your responsibility as a candidate, to weigh in. I was questioning its effectiveness in saving the SUN program given the current process on the county commission. I don't think the Sun program's problems are the result of the absence of potential solutions but, as you point out at the end, "collective will". What is needed is the collective will of three commissioners. The more they perceive pressure from outside, the more this majority seems to circle the wagons and dig in its heels.

    I hope the current commissioners are listening.

    ...

  • Andy Olshin (unverified)
    (Show?)

    Jeff: Has anyone looked at asking the non-profits at some of the SUN schools to "coordinate" their own efforts thus reducing the need for county staff as site coordinators ? Are county staff providing direct services at any sites ? If so, would contracting with non-profits for these services be cheaper ? How about cutting SUN administrative staff and seeing if direct service providers can provide excellent services without the "guidance" from county staffers ? Lending money from the CHIF ????? to the county ???? Please tell me such an effort would not even be discussed until after January 1st. Keep up the good work

  • John Capradoe (unverified)
    (Show?)

    Jeff,

    So glad you and Dan recognized the issue of how the TIF funding sabotages funding for Schools and Children's programs.

    Since you were so committed to the problems imposed by TIF on Children.

    Actually, John, I was working for Bev Stein in 2000 and led the fight to get the County's interests recognized in the creation of Urban Renewal Areas. I still don't believe that urban renewal areas should be allowed to take away the County's resources without the County's consent. But, rehashing that argument doesn't really help us much with the problem at hand: saving the SUN Schools today.

    What has Dan done and you as his right hand man done to curb this problem at hand, of TOD, TIF, etc, TRAM, since becoming part of City Council. Have you introduced an ordinance to make sure TIF funding does not cheat schools out of their fair share of taxes and the County's share for Head Start and children since coming to council.

    Or has the ChIF which is your claim to fame, and which Lisa Naito sits on the committee for served as a campaign booster returning only a small % of what UR has taken from the children's support program budgets.

    I am sorry if I seem cynical but it seems like the same old scam on the people of Portland, taking away lots, then giving back a token amount and crowing about it.

  • Senator Vicki Walker (unverified)
    (Show?)

    Your suggestions are very good, Jeff. I hope that Multnomah County reconsiders slashing this incredible program because the data shows that SUN schools are highly successful. I like the concept so much that I'm encouraging the Senate Commission on Educational Excellence to seriously consider adopting the SUN school program as a statewide initiative.

    Are you aware that George SUN Community School in Multnomah County has just received a National Award for Excellence by the Coalition for Community Schools? I just received notice about the award in the mail, along with a detailed list of achievements in test scores, overall learning, better integration of social services...and, get this...96% of clients in the program received permanent housing by the time they exited case management services! Homelessness is often cited as one of the reasons children are not doing well in school. What a difference permanent housing makes in a child's well-being and student achievement. In addition, 87% of the students at George SUN CS increased benchmarks in reading, and 76% increased benchmarks in math. Those are scores to shout about!

    The Coalition for Community Schools only gave out three school awards in the entire country, along with three community awards to Lincoln, NE; Chicago, IL; and Bedford Township, MI, where every single school is a community school!

    The partnerships have been established in your community for this fine program. I would encourage you to do everything you can to maintain them and keep this program as an integral part of your local education system.

  • John Capardoe (unverified)
    (Show?)

    Vicki-

    I really respect you and your attempts to shake the established network into recognizing the needs of the people and your pursuit of the Goldschmidt machine.

    I also agree that SUN Schools are a wonderful program we need more of and not less for community building and the future well being of our society.

    It is the irony at this post that is hard.

    she (Bev Stein) pointed out that the Interstate UR District alone would pull $5-6 million out of the County's Childrens Services Budget annually.

    There is the $1.7 million for SUN schools in some developers pocket.

  • Ross Williams (unverified)
    (Show?)

    There is the $1.7 million for SUN schools in some developers pocket.

    Perhaps, although almost all the Interstate Urban Renewal money went into the local match for the Yellow Line Max.

  • Ashley MacEachern (unverified)
    (Show?)

    The proposed cut of $1.7 million translates to a cut of $106.25 per child, this cut should not ruin or sink the program. If it does, we should all wonder about how effectively SUN is being managed.

    The County IS giving SUN $3.9 million. SUN schools should say thank you and responsibiliy go get the funds they need from all the people out there who think they need the 1.7. Where does the other 13/4 million come from? What do those donors have to say/gain/lose in all this?

    By the way, who manages the overarching goals and funds of SUN? Is there a Board? Or is it a mish mash of community partners with various goals, that may or may not be in sync with one another? Is it maybe a great tool for politicians/candidates to use to pose as the good guy because there is not one sole person or one clearly responsible body to look to with regards to governance? Hmmm.

  • John Capradoe (unverified)
    (Show?)

    Ashley,

    They are talking about not "thinning the soup" and cutting totally six I believe programs.

    This is a program that is so cost effective to keep kids occupied in a postive way and out of trouble.

    Ross,

    Wasn't that Yellow MAX line, a resurected half of the South/North Light Rail voters said NO to along with the convention center expansion also running in the red, (ie sucking tax dollars for vital services) that the politicos built anyway.

guest column

connect with blueoregon