Education officials from across Eastern Oregon converged in John Day last week for an education forum with state legislators before the legislative session.
School administrators and school board members provided their thoughts and ideas for improvements on education funding and legislation, focused on the smaller districts in rural Oregon, to Sen. Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, and Rep. Greg Barreto, R-Cove, Jan. 24 at Grant Union Junior-Senior High School.
Several educators said stable, consistent school funding was needed. Baker School District Superintendent Mark Witty said the same discussions happen every two years when the Legislature convenes to balance the budget.
“We need to fund education over the long haul,” Grant School District Superintendent Curt Shelley said. “Attempting to fund it biennium to biennium is not going to be a good solution for education.”
Bentz said Republicans have ideas, but Democrats must be willing to cross the aisle to develop bipartisan solutions. He said he was willing to discuss increasing revenue through tax reform but only if Democrats were willing to reduce expenses.
Witty said the Public Employees Retirement System, which carries a large cost for school districts, was a “big issue.”
Ferrioli agreed and said PERS beneficiaries should be demanding reform to ensure the program remained solvent. Bentz said one way to reduce costs statewide would be requiring state employees, such as teachers, to pay more for retirement and health insurance benefits.
Everyone at the meeting appeared to support the Small School Correction, which provides small schools more money per student. Oregon School Boards Association Executive Director Jim Green said he did not believe any legislators would try to cut the roughly $7.5 million in funding for the correction during the session.
The educators also agreed Measure 98, despite great intentions, would cause problems, especially for small districts, without legislative fixes. The measure, approved by voters in November, requires districts to spend $800 per ninth- through 12th-grade student on new programs to improve graduation rates, college preparedness and career and technical education. Districts were supposed to receive $800 per student in additional funding for the programs, but with the state facing a $1.8 billion budget shortfall to maintain current government service levels, Shelley said the Measure 98 requirements would amount to an “unfunded mandate.”
Shelley said the district has already invested in career and technical education but could not use the funds to maintain a current program.
“The million dollar question in our district is how do we create a new program when we’ve already got a program,” he said.
He said the district also has high graduation rates, and the requirements for new programs for ninth- through 12th-graders would require cuts to lower grade funding. He said, if new programs must be created, the programs should be able to be created at lower grade levels because improving third-grade reading levels, for example, improves students’ graduation rates.
Julie Gurczynski, superintendent of Prairie City School, said the law “has a great purpose,” but with only 12 full-time staff members in the district, implementing such programs is difficult.
“There’s got to be built in some flexibility,” Witty, the Baker superintendent, said. “... What happened to local control? It’s not as if the school boards don’t understand their situations and recognize where they need to invest money to get the best bang for their buck.”
Ferrioli said educators and education advocacy groups should push the Legislature to allow smaller schools more flexibility in implementing the measure and for caveats, such as an exemption from graduation rate program requirements for schools that already have high graduation rates.
Similar to Measure 98, the educators said a law meant to improve educational support for children with dyslexia also has unrealistic requirements for smaller districts. Shelley said the district wants to provide the best education possible for students with dyslexia, but a requirement to have a half-time dyslexia specialist in each school does not make sense for schools such as Seneca with only 29 students.
“No doubt we should service kids if they have dyslexia in all our schools, but we need to do it within reason,” he said. “In a small district, maybe one employee to service the district, or perhaps one employee of an ESD to service a county.”