Things We Might Cut Before We Close High Schools

Rich Rodgers

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?

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    At a meeting with the Lents Neighborhood Association and interested community members in support of Marshall High School superintendant Carol Smith's executive assistant Zeke Smith publicly stated that this redesign is not intended to save money!!! If it is not to save money then what the heck is the purpose? It is a huge waste of time, money and collateral trust with the community that PPS is supposedly serving! I personally attended that meeting and called Mr. Smith on that statement and he reiterated exactly the same thing! "It is not to save money."

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    PPS, like many public agencies handling confidential, private information, invest in IT products like Novell because they give greater internal control of security levels. I'm not comfortable with my student's educational information transferred via a less secure platform like g-mail. Giving up that security is not a wise cost saving measure. But I agree there are other Admin services that should be tightened up. One idea from ODOT: the state transportation agency instituted mandatory furlough days for its executive/management staff. The premise is these cuts do not have as direct affect on the agency's public services as cutting maintenance and operations staff.

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    Rich - your column starts with a false premise, that PPS has any interest in students. PPS is run for the benefit of the teachers' union, which has learned long ago to always cut classrooms first. You pour buckets of cash into the top, and a tiny trickle ends up in the classroom. They tell you "you have to pour on more money!"

    A simple and easy way to change this is to fund the schools directly with all dollars, and allow principals to purchase services like IT, HR, and so on from PPS.

    By changing who controls the cash you'd see a dramatic shift in behavior, not to mention the way spending gets prioritized. Certainly the schools would see a sudden increase in attentiveness by the centralized service providers.

    Worried they'll cut IT and HR to zero, or that each school will do its own thing? Then require the principals to negotiate as a group, and require them to spend (say) no less than 10% (pick a number you like) on these support services.

    This in a nutshell is similar to how the Labor government of New Zealand dramatically improved government efficiency. It's echoed (I was delighted to discover) in the new book "Management Rewired: why feedback doesn't work and other surprising lessons from the latest brain science."

    I would question whether any in-house system run by PPS is more secure than a comparable system run by Google. I'm not saying it isn't -- I'm saying I'd like some evidence. Too many small IT shops treat security as a stepchild activity.

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      Mr. Cox, If you wish for people to take you seriously and continue reading your commentary, you may wish to avoid starting with hyperbole and generalities. I am a member of OEA, a classroom teacher. I am one of those people lucky enough to spend time with students and unfortunate enough to see the daily result of poor management and misdirected resources.

      For you to imply that teacher unions, and by extension the teachers who make up those unions and their leadership, are in this job solely to protect their benefits is insulting and, more importantly the basest of knee-jerk right-wing propaganda. For you to begin any discussion with these false assumptions stolen from Right-wing talking points is to invite derision, not conversation. Which is too bad, because you actually have some points I would love to hear more about.

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      "PPS is run for the benefit of the teachers' union, which has learned long ago to always cut classrooms first. You pour buckets of cash into the top, and a tiny trickle ends up in the classroom."

      That doesn't make a damn bit of sense.

      If the school district was run for the benefit of the teachers' union, wouldn't it stand to reason that ALL of the money would trickle down to the classroom (i.e. teacher salaries and benefits)?

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    Thomas, having a good deal of familiarity with the dynamics between the PPS labor unions and PPS management, I can say with confidence that there is very little labor-management collaboration at the district. In fact, stronger labor-management partnerships would go a long way to resolving a number of issues, not just with the teachers but with the kitchen workers, custodians, etc.

    That said, I do like your idea of giving the principals greater control over their budgets for support services like IT, HR and communications. That kind of spirit is much like the approach to teacher assignment recommended by Stand for Children. You could even give the teachers and the PTA at each school the opportunity to participate in the discussions, as well, so that the relative priorities might be reflected in decision-making. That kind of school-based labor-management approach, combined with public involvement, would be far superior to the conventional centralized public information strategies favored by the district.

    Management and non-instructional furloughs are rough, but it's rough out there, and I'd go there before I'd close schools.

    I don't really buy the security argument. Any really sensitive data can be kept secure using a number of approaches that don't imply paying huge licensing fees for basic software capability.

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    Proposals like migrating PPS's email to gmail are nuts. Just one lost bit of information, and the slough of justifiable criticisms would come flying. Try and find one reasonably-sized business that uses gmail. It may vary by industry, but when I see a lawyer with a gmail account (it's very rare), I know I'm dealing with a novice.

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      How would you know if a lawyer (or anyone) is using Google's email service? After all, when using Google Apps, it's not "" on the email address domain name. It's whatever you want.

      For what it's worth, the U.S. Chief Information Officer (a post created in the Obama Administration) believes that a transition to Google Apps - and other cloud-hosted technologies - makes much more sense than organizations hosting their own IT infrastructure:

      The current model of companies hosting their own messaging and Apps is going to go by the wayside over the next five years. The recession is only going to exasperate the move to online Apps. And Google is the biggest catalyst in this arena. Kundra and other Technology officials entering Obama's administration think that Google Apps is the future. There are obviously data retention and security issues to be overcome before any company moves to Apps. There is also a pretty steep learning curve for users moving from Microsoft Office applications. The biggest barrier, however, is the old IT thinking that companies need to physically house and be able to touch their messaging servers and files.
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        Great point, Kari.

        And, gotta love Weintraub's "exasperate" for "exacerbate" -- another case of over-reliance on spell check, perhaps. ;-) (No fair pointing out my typo in my earlier comment on this thread.)

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        Thanks Kari. I hadn't read your response when I posted mine.

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      Jonathan, your dismissive and kinda nasty response belies the apparent truth that you don't actually understand much about how gmail is used in this context.

      It is not as though everyone signs up for their own gmail account. They keep their old email addresses, and the switch to gmail's servers happens behind the scenes, as the DNS settings are just directed from the domain name to Google's email servers.

      Large gmail users include the City of Los Angeles, Genentech, Motorola Mobile Devices, Google, and the District of Columbia, along with plenty of other examples of non-novice businesses of all sizes.

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    @TomB - I'm sure you're right and the union leadership have only the students' best interests at heart. I'm surprised to hear that there's no tension at all between the union leadership and its rank-and-file -- that's unprecedented. Do you see none or am I over-stating your case?

    As I understand it, every time the union has been offered a "keep teachers and cut pay, or cut teachers and keep pay high" they always go for layoffs over pay cuts. Not sure how that helps kids. Perhaps I'm mistaken there also.

    @Jonathan - not to go overboard for Google specifically, but Sanmina-SCI Corp runs corporate email for 16,000 people on Google Apps, to take just one example, and both Google and I believe Microsoft's "Exchange Online" are SAS-70 certified. I'd be very impressed if PPS's in-house IT team could pass SAS-70 certification. (SAS-70 is more demanding than HIPAA, if that gives you some sense of its rigor.)

    And no you won't see a gmail address because it's private label. Remember we're talking Google Apps not gmail. The quote above was "a comparable system run by Google" not "free web based email".

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    One of the interesting things in your list is student transportation. It's a smaller piece of the pie, but it all adds up.

    Traveling around the world, including to rich countries like the Netherlands, you'll often find people who don't understand the idea of school buses. That is, they've created neighborhoods and school systems and personal habits so most students bike or walk to school. I remember talking to one school administrator in the Netherlands who said, "Only 94% of our students walk or bike to school. We're working on increasing that number."

    No school bus costs, little need for parents to drive kids to school, and healthier kids. Clearly, we've got some sunk infrastructure and land use patterns here, but a little investment in biking and walking infrastructure could safe millions on busing in more urban areas.

    Thanks for starting the discussion and looking for actual ways to find efficiencies, rather than referring to unnamed "waste and inefficiency" as the folks across the aisle so often do.

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      Good points, Evan. Certainly, you can expect transportation costs to increase under the board's proposal. Not just direct costs to the district, but also to parents and students alike.

      Clearly, vehicle miles traveled and greenhouse gas emissions are going to increase as well, along with traffic problems during the commute.

      If you look at how much development was added to the city of Portland from 1990 to 2010, the enrollment issues are solvable from a demographic standpoint. Unfortunately, we don't currently coordinate school facilities and curriculum planning with land use, transportation, and housing investment. This leaves us with major unexpected costs in the schools.

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    Rich, a few comments:

    (1) Online education will fundamentally change high school education over the next decades. Some of that online education will take place outside of the current brick-and-mortar high schools. This can save money and expand educational opportunities. This will have two effects not accounted for in PPS planning: (a) the number of students in brick-and-mortar classes will drop (so that even seven high schools of the sizes proposed may be too much); and, (b) smaller size schools could/should offer a much wider variety of courses than is currently possible.

    PPS is being very slow to develop online programs, particularly classes that can be taken independently. They rejected my very modest budget proposal that online Mandarin be available to every PPS high school student.

    (2) PPS should offer every qualified high school student the opportunity to spend a high school year abroad paid for in full or in part by PPS (spending the same per pupil dollars whether the student is here in Portland or anywhere in the world). Concerns for our economic and national security futures should drive us to create such a program.

    (Note to Tom Beckett: The Portland Association of Teacher’s Legislative Committee rejected my appeal that they support a pilot high school study abroad program in PPS. In doing so they were, in my opinion, putting some of their labor concerns ahead of both the needs of individual students and our collective pursuit of economic growth and world peace.)

    If some students were to go abroad for a year of high school, the number of students attending PPS high school would be further reduced.

    (3) I know there is a lot of nostalgic attachment to the current Portland high schools. The high schools have histories with alumni and have become part of the fabric of communities. But our next generations face enormous challenges in the global economy. We need to change our educational system to help them survive. Clinging to all the existing high schools, knowing such clinging brings a third rate educational system, is not a choice we should knowingly embrace.

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      "They rejected my very modest budget proposal that online Mandarin be available to every PPS high school student."

      David, what was the actual cost of such a program?

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        Kari, here's what I submitted. It was more general than just Mandarin:

        "$75,000 (200 semester fees at $375 each) for pilot online foreign language learning programs for high school students

        "Both students and parents in PPS want more online courses. In February, 2010, as part of the High School Redesign process, a telephone survey was taken of 400 parents of high school students (100 each in grades 7th, 8th, 11th, and 12th) and 400 students (same grade distribution). 56% of the parents and 57% of the students had at least some interest in taking online courses. At the 11th/12th grade levels, 63% of the parents and 59% of the students had at least some interest. These are the tables as they appeared in the survey reports:

        "Survey question #`17. Taking courses online where students would take classes over the internet but would also receive help from an adult.

        "High Interest Some Interest Very Little Interest DK Parents: Total, N=400 19% 37% 42% 2% 7th/8th, N=200 14% 36% 48% 3% 11th/12th, N=200 24% 39% 37% 1%

        Students: Total, N=400 23% 34% 43% 0% 7th/8th, N=200 21% 35% 44% 1% 11th/12th, N=200 25% 34% 41% 0%

        "There are existing online foreign language programs which are either for high school students or could be adapted for high school students. Existing online programs are offered by Rosetta Stone, TellMeMore, Babel, Livemocha, the BBC, and others. Students should have a choice of programs so PPS should offer several alternatives. PPS should pay the fees for these programs for students who want to study foreign languages that are strategically critical to Portland and are not available at the student’s high school.

        Other suggested administrative parameters include: (1) Languages critical for Portland’s economic future should include Mandarin, Japanese, Brazilian Portuguese, Russian, Korean, Indonesian, Hindi, Vietnamese, German, French, and Arabic. Additional languages critical for Portland’s national security future should include Persian (Farsi), Pashto, Urdu, Dari and Bangla. (2) Pay no more than $500 for a semester or $1,000 for a full year course. Less, of course, is better. (3) Offer the courses, as one option, completely independent of the brick-and-mortar high school, either as an extra course (adds to total expenses) or, preferably, as one course in a full schedule (letting the student skip one period, first or last would work best. This has the potential to cut total costs). Other options include offering the course as a “hybrid” class in a brick-and-mortar school, such as in a study hall or computer lab with various possible levels of staff assistance. Budget for 200 semester fees at $375 each which equal $75,000. Consider this a pilot year to figure out how to administer such online programs."

        (Sorry I can't figure out how to format the two table here).

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    I don't know where to start.

    Rich and Evan project transportation savings in a "neighborhood" high school plan but this belies their ignorance--PPS has not provided any sort of bus transportation (except for that required by NCLB) for at least a decade (perhaps longer; we moved here in 2001). Anyone who actually has kids in the local schools would know this...

    More generally, Rich, I love your latter comment about integrating school planning with regional economic, transportation, and development planning. I don't know how you think we could have avoided the demographic shifts that our City is currently experiencing and at the same time retain our commitment to the UGB.

    While the overall student population grew last year, this followed 15 straight years of decline.

    The reality is that we have schools built for 1500 and serving 500.

    Your proposal just nibbles at the margins. Email? HR? Really??

    I wonder, given this posting, at what point we actually COULD muster the political courage to close a school. Sadly, the answer would probably be "never."

    To me the numbers are devastating. What would YOU propose at a school where:

    • Less than 1/3 of the neighborhood chooses the send their children
    • It enrolls only 435 students in a building designed for over 1200
    • Has a projected enrollment DECLINE over the next decade even though its surrounding neighborhood has the second largest proportion of high school age children
    • Has the lowest graduation rate among the "full" four year schools.

    This is a school in crisis. Yes, Jefferson is the state's only majority African-American school and it has a long and storied history. But the numbers leave little doubt that the school is failing. The neighbors know it, the rotating cast of principals know it, and the Board seems finally willing to acknowledge it.

    I want to hear a proposal that would cure Jefferson without a) dramatically changing its character and/or b) sinking in tons of resources. Closing seems to me the only other option.

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      Paul, Forceful, but wrong. PPS spends about $800,000 a year on bus passes for its students. Those bus passes would have been cut this year, but were funded out of reserves. The need for bus passes will increase with these proposals.

      Jeff's enrollment declined radically after the Academies were set up. It's been pointed out by many that the stream of constant experimentation has driven students away from the school.

      Why are you so exasperated by the idea of looking at administrative savings instead of closing high schools? A lack of stable funding is being cited by the board members in favor of closing Jefferson. But the district doesn't actually spend that much money on Jefferson, in light of its total budget.

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      I would like to ask you to at least review some of the potential savings involved in moving off of a system that requires maintenance of your own email server, whether Microsoft Exchange as shown here, or Novell, which is used by the district.

      Most of the potential savings come from IT personnel savings. It may be as much as $500,000 a year for an organization the size of PPS. This represents about 15% of the total instructional costs at Jefferson. There are certainly other non-instructional areas that may could yield lower costs before cutting instruction.

      How much does the proposal to close the neighborhood schools at Jefferson and Marshall save, according to the district? My guess is the answer is pretty close to $0. So much for the idea that drastic steps have to be taken to address the costs of keeping Jefferson open.

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