JOHN DAY – Educators emphasized the needs of rural schools at an Education Forum that drew four state legislators to John Day last week.
It was the first meeting of its kind to be held at Grant Union Junior-Senior High School.
State Sen. Ted Ferrioli and Reps. Cliff Bentz, John Huffman and Greg Barreto were on hand to gather information about the needs of small schools in Eastern Oregon.
Packed into the Grant Union library, the audience of about 80 included school board members, teachers, school administrators, and interested citizens from as far away as Ontario, Halfway, Mitchell and Lakeview.
Equitable funding for rural schools was the focus, but the bottom line – the students served by the schools – was not forgotten.
“We’re putting our heart and soul into our students,” said Superintendent Mark Witty of Grant School District No. 3 in his opening remarks. “We care about this area, and we represent kids that matter.”
Morgan Allen, a legislative specialist for Oregon School Boards Association, captured the frustrations and challenges for rural school districts, noting that no matter the size of the school, they still are required to fulfill all the state’s education mandates.
“Our small schools are expected to do what the large schools are expected to do,” he said, adding that rural schools are often the major employer in small communities.
Speaking about the state school fund, Chris Cronin, Grant School District No. 3 school board chair, described what her district went through to be on budget for the current biennium.
Drastic measures included the closure of Mt. Vernon Middle School, which merged into Grant Union; reductions equal to 19 full-time employees; and the closure of the district’s alternative school.
In a PowerPoint, Cronin showed that to meet targets to close achievement gaps for all students, including the state’s 40-40-20 goal, the state school budget would need to be $7.85 billion.
The 40-40-20 is the state’s push to have 40 percent of all students go on to earn a bachelor’s degree or higher, 40 percent finish community college and the other 20 percent at least graduate from high school.
Cronin said $7.55 billion would maintain current programs, while $7.45 billion would result in 4.56 percent budget cuts at their district.
Baker School District Superintendent Walt Wegener displayed pictures to illustrate the increasing layers of bureaucracy he’s seen in his district – a presentation that drew laughs.
“It’s hard to focus on 40-40-20,” he said. “I don’t disagree – it’s a great idea – but for us, it’s 15-80-5.”
He said a requirement that a teacher would need a bachelor’s degree to instruct students in how to drive a tractor doesn’t make sense, while local control does.
“We need highly effective teachers more than highly qualified teachers,” he said.
He added that students of his school district are receiving thousands of college credits.
“We educate our kids to live and be successful with us,” he said.
Other topics of discussion included Senate Bill 447 to support facilities improvement, Small School Correction, Education Service District funding request and Career Technical Education access.
Addressing the state mandate to implement full-day kindergarten, Chris Panike, La Grande School District business manager, said having that requirement without added funds ends up penalizing other school programs.
Grant ESD board member Dana Brooks, representing Dayville, said the education service districts need funding that is tied to the state school funding amount.
She noted ESD funding “has been stagnant since 2003,” adding the Grant County ESD has had to cut services to schools, and those costs are passed on to the local school districts.
Legislators asked for feedback, with Bentz recommending that people be specific in their emails to him about how lower funding is affecting the students.
Ferrioli said the argument for rural schools is an “equity issue and a fairness issue.”
He mentioned Long Creek School District, which has lost a significant population of students over the years and currently serves about 30 students.
I’ll “dig in and fight, because we’re not going to lose any school,” he said. “I will fill sandbags.”
Witty said the meeting was positive and an opportunity for those who serve rural students to be heard by their Salem representatives.
“I was very pleased with the commitment from our legislators who represent Eastern Oregon,” he said. “They were willing to take the time and commit to understanding critical issues that directly impact students in our region.”