Just drops in the bucket

12:06 pm

Amidst unstable funding for education and a lingering recession, Portland Public School teachers like me are stuck in the middle of contentious contract negotiations, one year overdue. Much information that is available to the public is filtered through Portland administrators, namely Carole Smith, who seems very much out of touch with the day-to-day workings of most teachers.

As news stories broke about $500,000 spent on Blackberries for “higher ups”, and $80,000 spent on hotel meetings for the same, one starts to wonder how much more is being spent on “non-classroom” items. One such story saw Matt Shelby, district spokesperson, say something to the effect that these items were very minor compared to the overall budget. And this got me wondering, “If these items were just “drops in the bucket” so to speak, how many drops in the bucket do there need to be, before the bucket gets filled, and people get mad?”

Drops in the bucket. There are 80+ schools in the Portland district. If each of these schools received $1,000, then that $80,000 spent on hotels takes on greater significance. I have had to scrounge for materials each and every year I have taught. $1,000 to buy the novel sets I desperately need to teach 7th grade. Wow, what a luxury. How many drops is that $80,000 now?

Not to mention $500,000. As I think about the computer lab our school was promised, but then denied, because we didn’t have the room, I wonder. Would half a million buy a lab? Or how about an addition to our cramped, “only suitable for elementary students but made to serve middle school students as well” library? A place to house our nurse and counselor and special ed. teachers, who currently have to share small quarters? This would not go far to fix all of our K-8s that are sorely lacking in facilities and resources. But, what if even one school got the treatment it deserved? How many drops in the bucket is that worth?

As we see the district move forward with its grand high school redesign, one cannot help but wonder what happened to the K-8 redesign. Did we miss it? And can we really trust a district that feels as if several hundred thousand dollars are just drops in the bucket?

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Sheila Wilcox is a PPS parent and K8 teacher.

filed under: Budget, Facilities, High Schools, K-8 Transistion, Labor Relations, Libraries, Middle Schools

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34 Responses

  1. Comment from Nancy:

    I’m home with my sick daughter today, writing a grant for $1,000 to buy books for my school library. It’s a “mini-grant” but is still taking me forever to write — they want a detailed list of books, authors and prices, just in case I am one of the lucky ones who is awarded the money.

    This week I discarded state books (reference materials), mildewy, faded and torn, from 1966. These books were old when I was a kid, that’s how old they were.

    This is a heartbreaking post, Sheila. You are not alone in this.

  2. Comment from Nancy:

    ps do you think that if one of my students needs info on a state — the population of Oregon or the size of Washington, for instance — that someone could look it up for them on a Blackberry? Because my three library computers are 15 years old and crash constantly. Makes researching difficult.

  3. Comment from Kathy Cooke:

    My head hurts thinking about the fact that my sons sit in class sizes of 28 4th graders, and 33 6th graders — while the district is spending $ on blackberries and hotel meetings.

  4. Comment from Nancy:

    Here’s the thing — they already own a “few” buildings (and then some). They can’t meet at someplace that doesn’t charge?

  5. Comment from Steve Buel:

    This may seem like a silly post in the middle of a contract dispute and all its intensity. But I still believe a lot of the problems experienced with PPS stem from the lack of having a definition of what is a quality education in its schools. If they had this definition it would allow parties to have a basis and context for making an argument. Right now, with no agreed upon definition of what constitutes a good education, any argument made is easily offset by another argument, often not even related. We need better libraries. Well, sure, but we need better music programs. Well sure, but we need smaller classes. Well sure, but we need more counselors. And on and on and on. It is the same idea of just having members of the community give input with no real guidelines. Everyone had input, but there is no impact of that input. This is similar to the high school redesign input. PPS will let you give input, but have no true influence on the decision making process.

    So PPS flounders along like a ship with no rudder going here and fro as the tides direct. So who wins in this situation? The people with the most direct influence on the board or on administrators. Hence, administrators get raises and the west side gets better schools.

    What was it my wise grandmother used to say — for lack of a nail a shoe was lost …. For lack of a definition our children are lost.

  6. Comment from Lakeitha:

    Another confirmation that I made the right decision by not allowing my child to be mis-educated in a K-8. Sheila, Thanks for the reminder that while the district begins (or finishes depending on the way you look at it) this High School Redesign, K-8’s are mostly still crap and until PPS fixes them,new buildings, new programs and new configurations at the High School level are destined to fail.

    By the way, no mention of the $78,000 overspent by the Principal at Jefferson High. Hopefully, the kids benefited from it somehow.

  7. Comment from Colleen Davis:

    Steve, the State of Oregon published The Quality Education Model several years ago and pay the committee every two years (?) to update it. Advocates use it as a measure to beg education money from the state coffers every two years. It has never been funded and PPS hates it when board committee people bring it up.

  8. Comment from John Dewey:

    PPS is the only public school district in the nation where the most powerful computer in the school is stashed in the bottom of the principal’s purse.

  9. Comment from Miss Merry Sunshine:

    Oh, ‘John Dewey’, you are right on!!!! And as for Carole Smith being out of touch with what is REALLY GOING ON IN THIS DISTRICT AND HOW THE TEACHERS FEEL—oh, yeaaaaaahhhhhhh. I don’t think she is in touch IN THE LEAST l with those of us in the trenches.

    Hey, y’know why I refuse to put my gradebook on the computer??? Because the thing is almost 10 years old and I have no faith in the equipment and we all know if there’s a problem, WE ARE ON OUR OWN!!!! The PPS has turned into some relic from the last century—it’s totally laughable, but oh, yes, let’s RE-DESIGN High Schools. How much confidence do I (and many others) have in the results of that? HERE WE GO AGAIN WITH ANOTHER GREAT EXPERIMENT/DISASTER. The people at the “top” never learn, don’t listen….and history repeats itself. A faithful watcher of the Board meetings, the mutual affection and laurels between the board and the district brass is enough to make my dinner come up. Let’s just rub each other’s backs and pretend everything is ok??? C’mon board, start QUESTIONING, START SAYING NO to every new program, redesign and “idea” that comes along, until we have improved WHAT WE HAVE!!!!!!!!


  10. Comment from Steve Buel:

    Colleen, thanks for the good comments. The Quality Education Model is the state’s idea of where we should go and it is assumed it can’t be funded. My older brother tried to get it funded with a floor which would help protect K-12’s, community colleges, and 4-year colleges. The OEA and Stand for Children worked against the proposal. I want a plan in place in PPS which says where WE should go and is prioritized so we can begin to go there.

    Miss Merry Sunshine, Your pain is real. I can’t feel it though since in my classroom in Evergreen District in Vancouver I (as do all teachers)have a computer on my desk which ties into the district’s
    network, a phone, a document camera, a VCR, a television hooked up to an all school feed, and one of those nifty machines which displays my computer screen on the screen in the front of the class.

    With a couple key strokes I can access all the information on a student in my class including phone numbers, contacts, address, grades in all his or her classes, the student’s discipline record, the student’s attendance record, and any health problems etc.

    Each teacher also has a website where parents can access class assignments, student grades, school schedules etc.

    Just thought you’d like to know. 🙂

  11. Comment from Carrie Adams:

    Merry Sunshine, thanks for helping identify at least one of the reasons behind the disparity in resources provided for parents. My daughter’s new school uses Parent Assistant but teachers at her previous school haven’t even heard of it. I love it. No more nagging her for progress updates.

    Lakeitha, maybe Jefferson’s principal needed the additional $78,000 to expand her Credit Recovery empire. Check out Jefferson’s school created website. You’ll find resources for the credit recovery, sports and athletic programs. Everything you need…oh wait. Where’s the college info? None.

    Is anyone concerned that the district might have a conflict of interest in having credit recovery programs? They create the problem then charge families to resolve it. Is it just another way that poor schools supplement wealthier schools?

    Also, when did the board quit developing their own questions. Does Zeke Smith really need to tell board members, parents and community members what questions they need to ask? If he wants to ask the board some good questions, he should repeat the ones he’s asked by parents and teachers.

  12. Comment from Carrie Adams:

    Make that credit recovery, sports and arts programs.

  13. Comment from Miss Merry Sunshine:

    Hey, Steve–congratulations on access to technology, more power to you! Some teachers in the PPS don’t even HAVE a computer, and what some of us are using, you can find in the ‘MAC MUSEUM’ at the Power Mac Pac store out on 122nd at the airport (I had a good laugh when I realized that what’s in my classroom, that I’m expected to function with in 2009, is a Mac museum relic!!!!).

    Yes, let’s re-design High Schools to improve equity—and start with upgrading the basic materials—like having actual BOOKS (like one for every kid, what a concept!), MATERIALS to implement new curriculum (enough for everyone), hardware and software for THIS CENTURY, NOT THE LAST. I can dream, can’t I????

    But, the administrators have their Blackberries, of utmost importance!!! Hooray!!!!

  14. Comment from S. Wilcox:

    When I read comments about technology, I think back about 7 weeks, when the district tried to install the latest email technology onto the server. Most teachers don’t have technology to support the updated version, so it had to be de-installed. Two questions. Who does have the latest technology? And, how did the district not know this going in? I have a computer THEY gave me. Hmmmm….

  15. Comment from Polly Zagone:

    I do hope that those of you that are teachers aren’t just sitting and waiting for new technology to appear. The principals of every school should have received the 2009-2010 IT Refresh information in August. I believe it is up to them to put in a request form. I can imagine that at many schools it wasn’t on the principal’s main to-do list. The main PPS IT webpage is http://ithome.pps.k12.or.us/.docs/pg/10118. On that page is the link to the School Start-up Guide and the IT Refresh 2009-2010 and closer to the bottom of the page is the Technology Plan PDF., which has the recommondations of what should be in every school and every classroom according to grade level. It would be good for teachers to read and bring it to the attention of their principals so requests for equipment can be made. I’ll bet the principal hasn’t read it and perhaps doesn’t even know about it.

  16. Comment from Miss Merry Sunshine:

    I don’t think any of us “sit and wait” for information, but I didn’t even know such a thing existed at the IT Refresh. All is know is that we are so up-to-our-necks in work and demands, that who on earth has time to deal with technology and asking (begging) for new equipment? Dream on. It’s the DISTRICT and ADMINSTRATION who are obligated to show SUPPORT for teachers by informing, working FOR US, to get us what we need to be more effective. THEY, THE PEOPLE WHO GET THE BIG BUCKS AND RAISES are the ones who should be bringing this to our attention!! Oh, yeah, I’ll go to the PPS webpage and just find out about what I’m supposed to have, maybe in a typical teacher’s day, that’ll be midnight…….or Winter Break……

    My point is: this is an example of how the administration and district staff could be and SHOULD BE supporting the classroom teacher.

  17. Comment from Polly Zagone:

    I am sorry. I should have phrased that differently. I know full well teachers don’t have time to sit. My hat is off to you teachers and the job you do for so little pay and support. As a parent I am grateful for what you do and astounded at the pay raises at BESC. I just thought it may help to know that getting the IT Refresh is usually something the principal is supposed to do. I have come across several principals who didn’t know that. Teachers need to make sure the principals know what is needed. Like us parents, we can’t rely on PPS to do the right thing for our child. We keep on bugging, poking and reminding them of what the law says or what their job title is. Yelling at the district to bring in the technology doesn’t look good when the procedure to do that starts in your own backyard. But believe me…I’m on your side! Classroom teachers need to be given the tools to do their job and compensation that reflects the importance of their job. My apologies for sidetracking the conversation.

  18. Comment from anon.:

    Just because the refresh dollars are there doesn’t mean you’re getting any of them. if u know what i mean.

  19. Comment from Matt Shelby:

    Debating where PPS should direct its limited resources is great, but it doesn’t help anyone when inaccurate numbers are used to spark a discussion.

    In 2008-09, PPS spent $254,782 on Blackberry devices, service, and licensing fees. $156,866 of that was reimbursed through a federal program (E-rate). That leaves us with $97,916 of General Fund money spent on Blackberries last year – about $29 a month for each device.

  20. Comment from Ken:

    Could you help us understand some statistics?
    You said PPS spent $97,916 of general fund dollars on Blackberries last year. Each Blackberry expenses pulls $29 a month, per device, from the general fund. By my calculations, we have somewhere between 281 and 375 people with devices devices ($97,916 divided by $29/month, divided by either 9 months or 12 months). Could you give us a rundown of the people who have these devices? From what I hear, these devices really do help you guys be more efficient with your time and respond to community inquiries more quickly, but I’ve also seen PPS administrators pull these out at times that’d I’d consider inappropriate (community meetings). Are these devices absolutely essential to the jobs performed by administrators? Regardless, this number is far higher than the number of principals we have in PPS.
    Can you explain where the $500,000 number came from? I believe you explained part of it to me (some of this money was for landlines, I believe), but it’d be great for everyone else to have access to this information.
    Any insights?
    -Ken Libby

  21. Comment from Miss Merry Sunshine:

    $97, 916, or $300,000—-either is way too much money for those “berry things”, when my current classroom computer is a relic of 2001, and a model on display in a Mac museum!!!! Oh, what just a little chunk of that money would have done in the name of technology for a teacher like me.

    Gee, that $97, 916 figure makes me feel SO MUCH BETTER!!!!! NOT!

  22. Comment from Steve Buel:

    Hard to get your figures straight when PPS is such a maze in order to get information. The last information I asked for was two months ago and since I didn’t follow up MYSELF I haven’t received the information. And do you know what? If I don’t follow up myself I won’t get it either. My experience is that the district doesn’t want you to get it and is only willing to share information if you bug them. Heck, when I was running my campaign for school board I asked for some information, not really a lot, but I was running for the school board for gosh sakes, and the request went all the way to Zeke Smith, the assistant superintendent.

  23. Comment from S. Wilcox:

    Oh if the Oregonian (you know that newspaper) were to dig even a little!! I was talking with someone last night, and he was asking why the media isn’t on to the district, and the obnoxious raises the admins get, and the other poor spending decisions, and the fact that teachers are being asked to take a pay CUT. These are your children people. Why is no one onto this story? My computer crashed three times yesterday, our mobile lab isn’t here yet, and neither are my books. Will we ever know the real amount for the Blackberries? Probably not. And, by the way, that half a million dollar number was in the media (Willamette Week maybe?) It wasn’t just pulled out of the air. W

  24. Comment from Matt Shelby:


    With all due respect, you do know the actual cost of Blackberries. The numbers I shared were straight from the Verizon Wireless bill for the district.

  25. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    From the Willamette Week blog, “On Feb. 25, 2008, the school board approved a $360,210 payment to Verizon Wireless for ‘cellular phones, Blackberrys, and associated service plans for 2008-2009.'”

  26. Comment from S. Wilcox:

    And to piggyback onto that, the teacher’s union president uses the half million dollar figure in her speech in September.

  27. Comment from Miss Merry Sunshine:

    Would someone tell me WHY ADMINISTRATORS need Blackberries? Is it because they are pulled out of their schools so much (for meetings), they need to stay on top of things? Or is it to conspire with BESC and report back to the top? PLEASE, would someone tell me why they need blackberries instead of using email and phone? WHAT IS SO IMPORTANT THAT THEY MUST CARRY AROUND AN EXPENSIVE “TOY” COMPUTER???

    I could understand the use of these devices in big business with super-important executives, but it seems to me they are used inappropriately (during basketball games INSTEAD OF DOING SUPERVISION, meetings with parents, times you KNOW they ain’t talking with PPS!!!!). A real luxury, not particularly a neccessity!!!

    Up ’til this fall, most teachers dealt without even basic classroom phones, or access to a private area to call parents–yet chastised for NOT calling parents. So where are we spending money? On Blackberries!

    In these economic times, when all employee groups are having to give, class sizes growing, schools suffering in basic supplies, the PPS buys BLACKBERRIES? THE PUBLIC ISN’T REAL HAPPY ABOUT THAT, LET ALONE THE TEACHERS. GOOD LUCK THE NEXT TIME THE PPS GOES TO THE VOTERS FOR A LEVY….

  28. Comment from Matt Shelby:


    You’re right, the district did spend $360,210 on cell phone and blackberry service districtwide. Of that, $254,782 covered Blackberry devices, service, and licensing fees. $156,866 of that was reimbursed through a federal program (E-rate). Again, that leaves us with $97,916 of General Fund money spent on Blackberries last year – about $29 a month for each device.

    This information has been readily available to anyone who has asked, and has been provided to others who have incorrectly stated that PPS spends $500,000 on blackberries.

    Even if you take the full cost of all cell phone and blackberry service before the district is reimbursed, it’s still nearly $140,000 less than $500,000.

  29. Comment from Susan:

    “Even if you take the full cost of all cell phone and blackberry service before the district is reimbursed, it’s still nearly $140,000 less than $500,000.”
    Sigh. Matt, instead of spinning the numbers to try to make it all sound reasonable, try responding to complaints that classroom teachers are doing more for less with deficient technology.
    Almost fell off my chair while visiting one of my child’s middle school teachers during open house because she was still waiting for a teacher computer to be delivered to her classroom. A computer so she can prepare lessons, track student attendance and grades, and communicate with parents.
    I also have seen the inane use of the BlackBerries at meetings – the groups of non-teaching staff obviously texting one another with hilarious jokes and comments.

  30. Comment from Marian:

    And why are the Feds reimbursing $156,000 in Blackberry devices? That money should be spent in the classroom. My kid’s teacher didn’t have her “new” textbooks for the first month of school. The other text books that they are using are 20 years old. Any money, Federal or local, should NOT go toward BlackBerries.

  31. Comment from S. Wilcox:

    And of course, Matt’s comment about a grant that paid for part of the Blackberries irked me. Let’s spend time writing grants for books and technology for TEACHERS (like I have been doing), rather than on toys for admins. How much time, resources, etc. did it take to put the whole Blackberry thing together?

  32. Comment from Rita Moore:

    You know, I can’t get this out of my head:

    “In 2008-09, PPS spent $254,782 on Blackberry devices, service, and licensing fees. $156,866 of that was reimbursed through a federal program (E-rate). That leaves us with $97,916 of General Fund money spent on Blackberries last year – about $29 a month for each device.” Matt Shelby

    Why is it that public servants who are paid handsomely for their work are just assumed to be entitled to freebie PDAs – including monthly fees? Nobody pays for MY Blackberry or MY monthly fees except me, even though I frequently use it for work and, believe me, make a fraction of the salaries of PPS, county, and city administrators. And that’s as it should be. I pay out of pocket and deduct a portion of the costs from my taxes as unreimbursed business expenses. In fact, most of us little people have to pay for our own phones. Are we to believe that these administrators would not possess cell phones or PDAs if they weren’t handed them by the District? Please.

    The explanation that PPS spent “only” $97,916 strikes me as astonishingly self-indulgent. Wouldn’t $98K come in handy for some other, more essential items – like, say, books? And I am strangely uncomforted by the idea that the Feds reimbursed the District to the tune of $156,866. Did they mandate that it go toward Blackberries? Couldn’t that money have been spent on some more essential items – like, say, upgrading computer services in schools?

    Has anybody considered the opportunity costs of spending this kind of money on the personal convenience of administrators?

    After all, these are my tax dollars, whether they come out of local or federal budgets. I’d much rather they be spent on the kids than on subsidizing well-paid adults.

  33. Comment from S. Wilcox:

    Well said. And that, really, is the point. Why was a grant written for admin. Blackberries, and not for, say, updated technology, or books?!!! This sense of entitlement, whether it be for a Fortune 500 company, or district principals, has got to stop.

  34. Comment from Justice Today:

    I am a PPS teacher and brought my own flat screen monitor to my classroom to replace the ancient PPS one that had a very small screen and was hard on my eyes. The laptops in our “computer lab” are 7 years old and require much maintenance to keep them running. We could have used the Blackberry dollars to benefit the students!