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Portland Public Schools would cut teachers to pay for raises

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The tradeoff arises from interim Superintendent Bob McKean's 2017-18 budget proposal.

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - A budget proposed by Portland Public Schools interim Superintendent Bob McKean would give 3 percent raises to employees while making severe staff cuts. Portland Public Schools may give 70 teachers pink slips so that its more than 6,000 employees can get 3 percent salary increases next year.

That's one takeaway from interim Superintendent Bob McKean's proposed budget for the 2017-18 school year, which McKean presented at Tuesday night's meeting of the Portland School Board.

School district leaders predict they'll have about $600 million in the general fund next year, roughly the same as this year. But that's at least $18 million less than what they want to spend, on everything from salaries and benefits for employees to safety improvements in aging schools with lead and other hazards. A 3 percent cost of living increase would cost the district $8.6 million—or the equivalent of 86 teaching positions.

"This is a budget with some difficult choices," McKean told reporters in a budget briefing before the school board meeting.

Off the table for McKean, though, is any consideration of withholding raises to spare additional teachers their jobs. His deputy chief executive officer at PPS, Yousef Awwad, told reporters Tuesday he didn't consider how many teaching positions the district could save by reducing or eliminating the wage increases. He said salaries for teachers, which top out at $78,321 for the most senior staff, aren't keeping up with neighboring districts. "We have to compete for the best teachers," he said.

The proposed wage increases come at a critical juncture for the district. PPS is in the midst of labor negotiations with teachers, whose contract expired last year. This is the first time PPS has been at the table with teachers since contentious contract talks in 2014 nearly ended in a strike. Contracts for all the other union groups in the district, including those for custodians and school secretaries, expire this year.

McKean's proposed cuts, if approved by the school board next month, would spell larger class sizes and fewer librarians in schools. They'd also mean that PPS couldn't meet state minimum requirements next year for physical education in schools, he acknowledged.

Tom Koehler, chairman of the school board, said McKean's proposal and its assumptions about wages could change. "Everything is on the table until the budget is passed by the board," he said. "This is a staff proposal that has been thoughtfully proposed to strike the balance on many things, including maintaining quality teachers and staff."

McKean's proposed budget also includes $15.8 million in cuts to the central office, including 59 staff positions, savings from vacancies and $1.7 million in cancelled service contracts. Awwad declined to say what contracts the district proposes to cut, saying he needed to notify the contractors first.