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Mood, cuts spur sharply different reactions to school budget

In 2009, when the school board cut $7.1 million, district patrons weren't nearly as weary - or as vocal

What a difference two years can make, at least in terms of the way a school district budget is received by its community.

While the Great Recession officially started in December 2007 and ended in June 2009, its fatiguing effects have lingered much longer in the minds and pocketbooks of local residents.

The economic mess has come home to roost as emotional - and sometimes angry - reactions to $7.5 million in cuts, proposed for next year's budget by Forest Grove schools Superintendent Yvonne Curtis, have boiled over in recent weeks.

District patrons have jammed meeting rooms, demanding accountability in a budget process many say left them largely in the dark until May.

'A lot of people are feeling like we don't have our vision out there for schools,' parent Monica Gorman told a citizens advisory group that met in the city library June 1. 'It seems like there's not much of a conversation about what we dream together.'

By contrast, there was barely a peep from the public in May 2009, when then-Superintendent Jack Musser engineered $7.1 million in reductions after state tax income took a huge, and in some ways unexpected, dive.

Fast-forward 24 months to an era of seemingly unending revenue hits, high unemployment and frustration over Oregon's educational funding formula, circumstances that have created a perfect storm for community outrage over decisions made at the top levels of school administration.

Now, it's all over but for the final gavel of the school board, which is charged with adopting a balanced budget each spring.

'It's a hard one,' said Anna Tavera-Weller, board chair. 'We need to all buckle down, go to our state representatives and ask them to put the money where it needs to go. They need to go to bat for us and for our kids, who deserve a solid education.'

Gasps, not groans

Two years ago, Musser instituted a wage freeze, laid off 18 teachers and cut five days of school to keep the district humming, eliciting groans - but not gasps - from the community.

What's the difference? Likely the way the cuts are being made, as well as patrons' collective anxiety over personal finances, the future of public education and bad news in general.

'The 2009 cuts were less of a problem because they seemed like the usual response to a downturn,' said Jim Moore, who teaches political science at Forest Grove's Pacific University. 'In 2011, the cuts keep coming with no end in sight.

'Along with the national conversation about public debt and unions, this fuels a lot of the response.'

Sharing the pain

Incoming business manager Mike Schofield, who played only a tangential role in formulating Curtis's budget proposal this spring, thinks that targeting programs and personnel to provide what solutions that are 'sustainable over time' has brought a full head of steam to the discussion.

'For the last several years, including 2009, the district has chosen to reduce days to accomplish a substantial portion of the reductions,' said Schofield, who starts at the district July 1. 'That can be appealing and less controversial because everyone shares in the 'pain.''

A short-term solution strategy, which Schofield said Musser employed two years ago, can work for a while. But, he added, 'at some point we either need to establish a new 'normal' by reducing contract days permanently, or we end up having these gut-wrenching conversations every year.'

Coming to a head

The issue will hit home Monday night, when the school board is due to debate and adopt a new budget.

Some in town are hoping board members take at least another week before they place a stamp of approval on the $49 million financial blueprint, which lays off dozens of teachers, eliminates a number of programs and closes a rural school.

But Tavera-Weller said Tuesday she doesn't expect the board to postpone its work.

'I believe we will be coming to a decision on Monday,' she said. 'Bottom line, we have to reach a conclusion on this.'

Curtis echoed Tavera-Weller's thought that the future of local schools largely rests with the Legislature.

'The district tried to keep the cuts away from the classroom as long as possible,' she said. 'Until our state changes the way schools are funded, we will continue to experience instability in funding.'