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New school funds need to be spent wisely

The Tigard-Tualatin School District has some very large choices that carry both immediate and long-term considerations when deciding how to spend anticipated increases in state school funding.

Even before the release this week of Gov. Ted Kulongoski's budget for the 2007-09 biennium, district officials were predicting that local schools would have anywhere from $1 million to $2 million on the low side - and as much as $3 million to $4 million - more in state funding. An up-tick in the state economy and in general fund tax collections is due most of the credit. This prospect was making the future for schools look brighter even before Kulongoski laid out his plans for giving schools much more than ever before.

For the past month and a half a group of almost two dozen citizens, district teachers, classified staff and administrators have been reviewing district needs and spending options in order to make a recommendation to the school board on how to budget these new funds beginning in July.

While no final recommendations have been made, we urge the advisory group to keep in mind the advice of Superintendent Rob Saxton who cautioned that choices to spend any of these new funds must be sustainable over time. Frankly, we would hate to see the district create new programs or initiatives that later cannot be supported financially should state funding change for the bad. History will indicate that many times in the past local governments have used one-time federal or state funds to expand programs or hire new full-time staff only to be later forced to dismantle things as funding priorities changed or the economy turned stale.

That said, what Tigard-Tualatin educational outcomes would be best served by targeting the expenditure of these new state funds?

We think a first priority would be investing in building maintenance and safety issues that unfortunately for more than two decades have not be strategically dealt with. All too often, school maintenance was not budgeted for unless a construction bond measure was supported by voters and included some funding for preserving older, existing schools. Unfortunately, repairs were often delayed and when a crisis occurred the repair was paid for from general fund dollars that we would prefer be spent in the classroom.

A second priority would be making investments in advancing student educational achievement through increasing the number of teacher aides or time that classroom teachers can spend one-on-one with students. We are talking about focusing both on under-performing students in need of help and also high-achieving students that will excel even more with the personal involvement of a teacher.

A third and fourth priority would be to have plans prepared to use any larger state windfall to reduce average class sizes by one or more students and to invest in an on-going effort to update student textbooks and learning materials.

Certainly, choosing to spend new state funds is much better than the alternative - cutting programs and staff as required following voter passage of Ballot Measure 5 in 1990 and cutbacks required in 2000-2001 after state funding to schools was imperiled by an economic recession.

But deciding how to spend new money also comes with a definite amount of pressure and responsibility. The public and students should expect positive outcomes.

We think that any eventual recommendations by the advisory group - and any decisions by the board - must follow criteria that ensures that the investments made will have a measurable positive impact and will improve the ability of local schools to better educate students in safe, sustained and on-going ways.