Forest Grove hosts initial collaboration discussion geared toward 2013 legislative session

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Forest Grove School Board vice-chairman John Hayes takes a question during the education funding summit. Set aside the infighting over PERS and property taxes. Suspend the squabbles about how to divide the state revenue pie between prisons and human services. That's the sharp message from lawmakers and educators from across Washington County, who are coming together as a force for K-12 funding reform in Oregon.

Representatives from every school district in the county — from Sherwood to Beaverton to Banks — plus five local legislators, met in Forest Grove Thursday night to generate a common voice for change to Oregon's K-12 funding formula.

"Tonight we hope to walk away with a plan so we can speak to the legislature with a united voice, rather than all of us trying to go it alone from each district," said Forest Grove School Board Chairwoman Alisa Hampton, who anticipates similar meetings in future weeks. "I think things are at a tipping point," she said.

After dinner, a panel discussion and small group conversations, the room came up with a nine-word focus question they hope will guide discussions in the state capitol as the 2013 Legislature moves more fully into floor debates next week: "What do our schools need to do for kids?"

Jim Green, deputy executive director of the Oregon School Boards Association and a member of the Salem-Keizer School Board, will become the de facto messenger when he takes the group's plea back to Salem.

"We've had the largest budget cuts of any school district in the state over the last four years," Green told the gathering at the school district office.

Fair and balanced

Gov. John Kitzhaber's 2013-15 budget, released Dec. 1, increases state school aid by 8 percent to $6.15 billion.

That sounds encouraging, until you look at the cost of state pensions.

Oregon's Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) rate is due to jump from 11 percent to 29 percent in July, Green said.

The governor is calling for $865 million in savings by curtailing cost-of-living increases and closing a benefits loophole for out-of-state retirees.

But if those talks stall, the PERS increase could severely hurt individual district budgets.

Sen. Bruce Starr of District 15 said he was "frustrated" that the dual issues of PERS and the state corrections system "get thrown into the mix" with education funding. He added that a full discussion of the issues is likely to push the session into overtime.

"I wouldn't rule it out," said Starr, a Hillsboro Republican. "I lived through five (special sessions) in 2002."

If an extended session is what it takes, several educators indicated they're fine with that.

"Something has to give," said Sherwood School District Superintendent Heather Cordie. "I find it discouraging that I'm getting really good at thinking about what a budget reduction process is supposed to look like.

"We need to have kids at the center of our thoughts. There's nothing about the present model that is OK."

In Forest Grove this year, "we'll be cutting another $2.5 million to $3 million," said Superintendent Yvonne Curtis, who sits on the Oregon Education Investment Board created by Kitzhaber. "We're a school district that has worked very hard to close the achievement gap, and we've done that at our high school. We're very fearful of slipping backward."

Hearing from retirees

Sen. Betsy Johnson, whose District includes Gaston, Dilley and Banks, predicted "a very rough session," at least partly due to disagreements over PERS.

"I'm already hearing from retirees," said the Scappoose Democrat. "That debate is going to be acrimonious and difficult. There are huge changes in public safety that have put legislators in the position of saying 'it's either prisons or kids.' This discussion on gun control could easily derail the conversation."

But Rep. Ben Unger, a Hillsboro Democrat, circled back around to large class sizes after hearing from a number of board members and superintendents.

"I'm new, so I just spend a lot of time knocking on doors and talking to parents," said Unger, who represents Forest Grove, Cornelius and western Hillsboro in District 29. "Recently I was in a fourth-grade classroom at (Forest Grove's) Harvey Clarke Elementary with 33 kids and one teacher.

"One of the kids read to me (but) he was struggling. If I wouldn't have been there with him, he would have given up because he didn't know the words. It was the first time I saw what kind of impact this lack of funding has at the classroom level."

Banks School Board member Richard Bowden said that in his district, at least one second-grade class had 38 students. Banks Superintendent Bob Huston went a step further.

"I've never quite seen anything like this in my 40 years in education," he said. "We have 10 furlough days for all staff and we had 10 last year. We have no place else to cut. Everybody's feeling the pain — it's a real test of resiliency."

Carolyn Ortman, a longtime member of the Hillsboro School Board, said she was "sad about the complacency our communities across the state have come to expect" from school districts. "Cutting days is the norm, and we've allowed the issues to make us settle.

"We've lost track of the fact that these students have one opportunity" for a good education, Ortman added.

Political strength

District leaders also lamented Oregon's tax system and its drag on efforts to keep up with federal and state education mandates.

"We're talking, but we're not having the right conversations," said Beaverton Superintendent Jeff Rose. "We're here talking about paying for something that should be a basic right for kids. I hope someday we have the political strength to change the way we fund education."

Tigard-Tualatin School Board member Jill Zurschmeide said that in her district "we have some amazing programs — some that help keep our students in school — but we can't fund them." Because of that, she said, "there are 40 to 60 kids a year who are not going to finish high school."

Thinking "outside the box" came up more than once at the meeting, first out of the mouth of Forest Grove School Board member Kate Grandusky, who spearheaded last week's gathering.

"We can't keep doing what we're doing now," she said. "My vision was to get people together to look at different ways to move forward. I think this is a beginning. I have hope."

Rose, who's in his second year at the helm of the state's third-largest school district, called Oregon's K-12 funding a "shrinking pie" whose dollars are not keeping pace with new, often unfunded, mandates.

"The overall (budget) number goes up, but it doesn't go up in accordance with costs," Rose said. "We have some classes at 60 at our high schools. It isn't working."

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