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School funding leads wish list at Washington County Schools Legislative Forum

Third annual education gathering highlights need for more money

Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Beaverton School District Jeff Rose talks during a roundtable discussion at the Washington County Schools Legislative Forum.

If school districts in Washington County have their way, state legislators will focus on three things during the recently started legislative season:

Funding, funding and more funding.

School board members and lawmakers got together in Tigard last week for a special meeting to discuss legislative priorities for the new year.

The Washington County Schools Legislative Forum — held Wednesday, Jan. 21, at Fowler Middle School in Tigard — was the third in what has become an annual event in Washington County, bringing together 59 legislators, school board members and school district officials from the Banks, Forest Grove, Gaston, Hillsboro, Beaverton, Sherwood and Tigard-Tualatin school districts to discuss the most important issues facing schools.

This year, district leaders said, those issues are increasing instructional time, adding more career and technical education opportunities, and state funding.

Districts have had a rough time over the past few years, said Tigard-Tualatin Superintendent Ernie Brown. Since 2007, the Tigard-Tualatin School District alone has had to lay off 138 people, including teachers, administrators and support staff.

“If you were a kindergartner in 2007, then nearly your entire elementary school experience was influenced by shrinking budget, increased class sizes, reductions of programs offered, and in some cases, shortened school years,” Brown said.

Governor John Kitzhaber’s proposed budget offers $7.2 billion for K-12 schools across Oregon. But school district leaders say it would take $3 million more dollars just to maintain current levels at the schools, and another $7 million in order to meet the national average.

“Achieving greater school funding will require hard decisions and will require difficult work,” Brown told legislators. “We look forward to working with you on those issues.”

It all comes back to funding

Oregon voters have turned down a state sales tax nine times, but school board members from across the county say that imposing a sales tax may be one option to stabilizing Oregon’s chronically-fluctuating education budget.

“Major tax reform is needed to resolve some of this,” said Beaverton and Aloha state Sen. Jeff Barker. “But the public doesn’t support kicker reform or a sales tax.”Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Beaverton School Board member Donna Tyner, upper left, talks during a roundtable discussion at the Washington County Schools Legislative Forum.

Instead, said state Sen. Ginny Burdick, who represents Tigard and Southwest Portland, any additional money for schools will have to come from existing sources, such as funding for state prisons.

“You have to be willing to risk the hit piece about being soft on crime, Burdick said.

Nothing can be done without more funding from Salem. But if the money does come, school districts said they’d like the state to increase the amount of time students are required to be in school.

“Oregon has one of the shortest schools years in the nation,” said Claire Hertz, chief financial officer with the Beaverton School District. “Conventional wisdom is that it is too big an issue to tackle. There hasn’t been a serious attempt to do something about our school year.”

A longer school year would help close the achievement gap and improve outcomes for all students, Hertz said.

Oregon students due lag behind their peers in other states when it comes to instructional time. Most states require between 170 and 180 days for students in high school, while Oregon requires that high school students spend only 990 hours in the classroom; while the differentiation between hours vs. days makes comparisons somewhat imprecise, most agree that Oregon students get about a month less school time than most students in the country.

The longer the summer break, district officials argue, the less students remember when they get back to school in the fall. It all contributes to Oregon’s lower-than-average high school graduation rates, higher-than-average achievement gap between white and minority students, and its high dropout rate, Hertz said.

The state sets minimum hours students must spend in class, but school districts set their own calendars, said Jenni Deaton, a spokeswoman with the Oregon Department of Education.

But school district leaders say increasing days would require additional funding from the state legislature.

“Add that with some of the largest class sizes in the country and Oregon’s low investment in K-12 schools, it all adds up to what we have begun to refer to as Oregon’s ‘education fundmamentals’ gap,” Hertz said.

Districts also would like to bring more career and technical education programs to students. That’s difficult to do for rural districts without easy access to programs.

Shirley Azaria, a student at Glencoe High School in the Hillsboro School District, said that the path to finding additional funding won’t be easy — but it is necessary.

“We are taking a step forward. Our districts know this is a priority. But unfortunately, we are 10 years behind,” she said. “You go into a computer classroom (and) how will they learn how to code when they are using programs form the 1990s? We are in the 21st century ... we need to do things now.

“I can learn welding from a book, but it’s completely different actually doing it,” Azaria added. “That’s what’s going to stick with kids after they graduate and what will help them find jobs.

"Oregon can be an example of a state that invests in education and does what it needs to do for its kids. It will take time, but we can do it.”

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