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Can schools cope with fewer funds?

Kitzhaber official fills area leaders in on governor's plan for education

Gov. John Kitzhaber's plan for public education focuses less on enlarging the budget pie and more on designing a different one.

According to his assistant education policy advisor, it's no longer just about enrollment numbers or test scores. There's a state-level shift in the wind toward creative partnerships, innovation, outcome tracking and local control.

Whitney Grubbs spoke May 25 at the State of Education luncheon at the Sabin-Schellenberg Center South Campus in Milwaukie, an annual event sponsored by the North Clackamas County Chamber of Commerce and Kaiser Permanente Sunnyside Medical Center, and catered by students from the center's Culinary Arts Program.

Given the $3.5-billion state budget deficit, chances are Oregon public schools will have to get by on about $5.7 billion for the next two years--about $1 billion less than projected need.

"No question there's a resource issue and not enough resources to fund what we'd like to fund," Grubbs told the group of local educators and business leaders. "What I think the governor is committed to is making sure the funds we do have are used as effectively as possible and that money that is spent is doing what we need it to do."

Kitzhaber telegraphed as much back in December at a speech soon after his election. "This session is when we stop kicking the can down the road and redesign how we deliver services," he reportedly told a gathering at the Oregon Business Plan Summit.

To accomplish this in the public education sector, the governor is hanging his policy hat on Senate Bills 290 and 909, both still alive in the current legislative session scheduled to adjourn by June 30.

SB 290 would establish statewide core teaching standards, require school districts to rate effectiveness of their teachers and administrators, and change practices if necessary. SB 909 sets up a non-regulatory Oregon Education Investment Board (OEIB), which would study how to streamline, connect and integrate the educational system, resulting in an "outcomes-based" budget and overall structure.

"The budget redesign is a piece that's already started," Grubbs noted.

While the current enrollment-based public education funding system needs to give way to a more results-oriented system, she indicated that doesn't necessarily mean more taxes, although no revenue option is off the table.

"Right now the system is set up so the money leaves (a school) when kids leave," Grubbs said. "If they need to take longer or they need to move faster, it needs to be more student-centered. We need to get the kids to the outcome they deserve."

The board envisioned in SB 909 would measure results through a statewide data system that would track kids from pre-school through high school. A handout describes this as a "zero-to-20 learning spectrum" approach.

Grubbs stressed that public schools are the source of much educational innovation that can be replicated elsewhere and that the governor's vision allows for even more local control.

"How they get there is best left to the people on the ground," Grubbs said. "They are the ones who can best determine what works best for their community."

Local schools face challenges

Three local school administrators participated in a panel discussion after Grubbs' talk, with audience questions centering on the aftermath of budget cuts, how the governor's ideas would work, and what else might be done to improve the system.

Joanne Truesdell, president of Clackamas Community College, said the biggest problem at CCC was getting students to complete courses. Superintendent Tim Mills of the North Clackamas School District commented that teachers have plenty of good data on students but not enough planning time to help individual ones. Superintendent Bob Stewart of the Gladstone School District emphasized better tracking systems so preschool kids are ready to learn to read when they enter first grade.

After grappling with recent budget cuts, they predicted no new teachers would be hired in the next two or three years but laid-off teachers could be recalled if the economy improves.

Truesdell said CCC has cut expenses, sought grants and explored other revenue-generation ideas, yet is still a bargain when it comes to paying for a college education.

North Clackamas has lost about 20 percent of its workforce, Mills noted, but remains focused on accountability and meeting the needs of students. He said the investment per hour per student is about $8, which is being stretched to cover not just a comprehensive education but transportation to and from school and many other services.

What are "reasonable educational costs" in Oregon? "That needs to be a part of the discussion," Mills said. "Our kids deserve more than the best we can do. We have the opportunity to come out of this time with a wide conversation."

Stewart noted that every Oregon school district is in the same unenviable situation, plus they face an increasingly disgruntled electorate.

"As we saw in the last election from local option levies, only one of those passed, and that was the City of Portland's renewal," he said.

Administrators are looking at consolidation as another budget-cutting strategy, with CCC working with Mt. Hood and Portland community colleges to make sure programs aren't being duplicated. Mills said consolidating districts is a touchy issue since community support is strong for individual schools; however, there might be ways to leverage funds to share the cost of certain positions.

"While consolidation sounds kind of sexy, if you looked at some of the largest districts around the state, I can tell you Tim (Mills) and I would not point to those districts as how we would want to consolidate in Clackamas County," Stewart said. He added that Oregon has more than 190 school districts, and while he could see some smaller ones of 100 students or fewer consolidating in the future, merging larger ones would take a lot of time and effort.