IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Portland Schools to Axe Online Academy Amid Budget Cuts

With enrollment plummeting since the onset of the pandemic, Portland Public Schools is closing its Online Learning Academy in June as a cost-cutting measure. Its enrollment has dwindled to 225 students across 13 grades.

student online class
(TNS) — Portland-area school districts are bracing for budget austerity in the coming school year, after a relatively flush few years underwritten by an influx of pandemic-era federal aid and new sources of state funding.

The first casualty is Portland Public Schools’ Online Learning Academy, which will cease operations in June as a cost-cutting measure, district officials said this week. Its enrollment had dwindled to just 225 students across 13 grades, from kindergarten to grade 12.

More cutbacks could be in the offing in the months ahead in Portland and other large Oregon districts that have seen the steepest enrollment drops since the onset of the pandemic.

Portland Public Schools, the state’s largest school district, lost 3,500 students since fall of 2019, and population researchers say it should expect to lose about 500 students per year for the next few years, Jonathan Garcia, the chief of staff to Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero, said Wednesday.

At the pandemic’s height, some families sought alternatives to public education, such as religious schools or home schooling. Some school advocates held out faith that they would flock back to the public system once buildings reopened. But that didn’t materialize in the hoped-for numbers, and the enrollment drop is now compounded by lower birth rates and fewer families moving to the city, Garcia said.

In the meantime, districts used federal grant money and dipped into reserves to pay for student mental health and behavior supports to ease the often-bumpy readjustment back to in-person school. With federal aid about to run out and savings account depleted, many districts will need to cut personnel and programs to match their dialed-back student populations.

Said Garcia: “We are going to have to make the necessary adjustments to our offerings and our budget.”

That message came a day after Gov. Tina Kotek released her budget blueprint for the next two fiscal years, which calls for $9.9 billion for core education services. That’s $400 million more than state budget analysts say is needed to maintain current class sizes and program offerings next school year but at least $400 million less than school boards and the state superintendent’s lobby say is needed to prevent cuts.

It also comes just as the district has opened contract negotiations with its teachers union. The Portland Association of Teachers is seeking “hard caps” on class sizes of no more than 23 students per teacher in kindergarten, 25 in first grade and 26 in grades two through five. Under the union’s proposal, middle school teacher caseloads would top out at 150 students, while high school teachers would supervise no more than 160 students.

Most Oregon school districts don’t allow their teachers unions to set limits on class sizes as part of contract negotiations. And the Legislature in 2021 defeated a top priority bill of the powerful state teachers union that would have required districts to secure union agreement on class sizes, after The Oregonian/OregonLive reported on how that can undermine districts’ efforts to better serve Black, Latino, Indigenous and low-income students.

Proposals for smaller classes are popular with many families and educators— and when enrollment is declining, class size caps add a measure of job security. But Oregon’s class sizes are already at historically low levels.

And, given the enrollment declines in Portland Public Schools, principals have been told to expect reduced staffing levels for next school year, said Cheryl Proctor, deputy superintendent of instruction and school communities. To soften that blow, the district plans to allot $100,000 to $125,000 in federal pandemic aid to each of the district’s 81 schools, to spend as the principal and a group of educator and parent advisers see fit.

Schools are being urged to use that money for professional development, or for specialized academic help for struggling students, not to hire full-time employees, Proctor said. And the new funds come with a catch: Schools with parent-run foundations that currently raise and spend at least $75,000 to hire extra educators can’t use their one-time district grants to add on full-time employees. Schools that raise less than $75,000 can put up to 70 percent of their one-time allotment towards hiring a full-time employee.

Online Learning Academy families said they had no inkling that the program was at risk of closure before an email landed in their in-boxes Tuesday afternoon. With just over 200 students, the program is now so small, Garcia and Proctor said, that keeping it running was just too expensive in belt-tightening times.

Hollis Blanchard, who lives in Southeast Portland, said his third grader, Reiter, has been thriving at the Online Learning Academy. Reiter, who has autism, excelled in remote school during the pandemic, but when he went back to second grade in person, things went south, his father said.

“He was suspended many times, had frequent behavioral outbursts and his final report card was full of ‘minimal skills’ and ‘no evidence’ marks,” Blanchard said. His school recommended that he be put into a special classroom for students struggling with social and emotional skills. Instead, his parents put him into OLA. Just a few months later, his report card was back to being stellar.

“We chose OLA over the other online options because of having local peers and a daily teacher-led schedule,” Blanchard said. “There is no question in our mind that a social-emotional skills classroom will be literally traumatizing for him. We now need to seriously consider options like completely home schooling or finding another online education program in Oregon. We have no plan, and we’re reeling.”

Several other metro area school districts with online-only programs said they have no plans to cut them. Paul Ottum, principal of the Beaverton School District’s FLEX Online School, said his program currently enrolls between 550 and 600 students, about half of its enrollment at the pandemic’s height, but still nearly three times the number of students in PPS’s program.

Students land at FLEX for all sorts of reasons, Ottum said: They or someone in their families is immuno-compromised, they need flexibility in their schedules because they’re holding down a job or pursuing a passion or they simply don’t fit the mold of in-person school. FLEX has a physical campus with a science room, a library, a technology lab and an art room to build community, Ottum said.

“The idea that we wouldn’t have something for students that need something different than in person doesn’t make sense to me,” he said.

Hillsboro has operated its online academy since 2012 and has no plans to close it, said Assistant Superintendent Audrea Neville. The school has 382 full-time students in grades K-12 and another 130 who are jointly enrolled there and at a district high school.

©2023 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.