If you've been following the public discussion on Portland Public Schools' high school redesign, you might be left with the impression that the high schools are hemorrhaging cash, leading to the necessary conclusion that the district has to close a high school or two or face financial disaster.
Let's keep things in perspective. Out of the total Portland Public Schools budget of $661,131,016 for Fiscal Year 2009-2010, instruction and school administration costs at Jefferson total about $4 million. This includes 34 teachers, and about 6 full time employees handling administration.
In fact, the instructional costs for every high school in PPS total $60.5 million--less than 10% of the overall budget for the district! Compare this, for example, to $145.9 million in non-instructional support services. While this $145.9 million includes essential line items like principals, utilities, custodial, maintenance and student transportation, a staggering $35.9 million goes to HR, information technology, and public information. The Superintendent's office alone costs more than $4.5 million this year, with a request to boost the budget to $4.75 million for the next fiscal year.
Since every few years we talk about closing schools, it seems necessary to ask: what goes into these administrative costs? Even in the event that these costs are more or less in line with other government entities, when it comes down to closing neighborhood schools, how creative are we willing to be?
Last I heard, PPS is still on Groupwise. I have to wonder out loud--are they paying for a Groupwise license for every teacher in the district? According to Wikipedia, Groupwise is a "messaging and collaborative software platform from Novell that supports email, calendaring, personal information management, instant messaging, and document management." In other words, Groupwise performs a number of functions, for a fee, that are available for free from a variety of sources, including Google Docs, Gmail, and Sun's Open Office platform.
Is the school district running its own email server? It certainly seems so. Perhaps it could migrate to Gmail, even keeping its domain, for a fraction of its current cost--if at any cost at all. Teachers could communicate directly with parents via Facebook and other social media platforms. Again, for free.
How much central HR is needed? Public Information? Financial analysis? These are not unimportant jobs, and some central role is needed, but it's not impossible to imagine creating specialties among the instructional and administrative staff at each school to handle much of this work. We're talking about people with masters' degrees. Much like firefighters obtain specific training for specialties as diverse as structural collapse, dive team, and hazardous materials, it seems reasonable to explore the possibility that public school teachers could be trained in additional admin functions, taking advantage of the huge productivity gains that are made possible by contemporary software options. Every self-employed person in the city of Portland understands these dynamics, for better or for worse.
I don't want to suggest that it's desirable to move away from the professional provision of many of these support services. Teachers are already taxed in their workloads, and all things being equal, it would be best to let specialists handle this kind of administrative support work.
But we're facing a situation in which the school board is proposing to close two neighborhood high schools, and in the process, they will save next to nothing. Teachers will be laid off, but those who remain will still be assigned based upon district-wide student/teacher ratios and socioeconomic status. Administrative staff will still be allocated by formula. And because these buildings will not be shuttered, but rather will host new, small-scale special programs, even the mixed-blessings of cost savings from foregone utilities, maintenance and custodial work will not be realized.
I hope that the Portland Public Schools board will slow down, and take a much broader view of its options for the district's high schools. Contrary to what is implied by the urgency of the redesign effort, there will be no real cost savings from the current proposal advocated by a majority of the board. The proposal will cut deeply into the relationship that many neighborhoods have with our public schools,and we will have very little to show for it.
It seems that there is little to be gained from the current version of high school redesign favored by a majority of the school board, and much to be lost. If the goal is to beef up curriculum offerings and close the achievement gap, how about starting with the presumption that we can find a way to afford spending more than 10% of the district's budget on instruction in our high schools?