Forest Grove uses funds to add teachers after legislature tweaks PERS

Parents concerned about classroom overcrowding in Forest Grove got some welcome news at Monday night’s school board meeting.

In his updated enrollment report, Assistant Superintendent John O’Neill told board members that the recent adjustment in Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) contributions approved by the Oregon Legislature has — so far — funneled an estimated $850,000 into the school district.

Lawmakers made PERS adjustments during their recent three-day special session.

“With this additional ‘grand bargain’ funding, we were able to add a half-time teacher to the staff of Harvey Clarke [Elementary], and half-time literature/math teachers to Cornelius and Echo Shaw [elementaries],” said O’Neill. “We also added a full-time physical education teacher for grades K-4; a full-time lit/math support teacher at Tom McCall [Upper Elementary]; and an additional lit/intervention support teacher at Fern Hill [elementary].”

During the public comment portion of the meeting, several parents — including Stephanie Vasquez, head of a recently formed group pushing for solutions to over-packed classrooms — told the board they were grateful for the added teachers.

Even though Vasquez emphasized more needed to be done to ease overcrowding, the president of the teachers’ union praised the board.

“We want to thank you for alleviating some of the classroom size problems,” said Jeff Matsumoto, who leads the Forest Grove Education Association.

According to some estimates, “grand bargain” funds could total as much as $3.5 million for the Forest Grove School District over the next several years. And while the most recent windfall has paved the way for quick staff additions this fall, administrators must consider future PERS pension rate increases that will use up funds earmarked for new teacher hires designed to maintain reasonable class sizes.

Also adding to district budget concerns are fluctuating enrollment figures.

“Currently we have a total of 5,777 students in grades K-12, which is a 10 percent increase over last year,” said business manager Mike Schofield. “Enrollment in 2013-14 actually went up by 52 students.

“While enrollment in grades K-4 increased by 57 students and by 39 in grades 9-12, grades 5-6 decreased by 27, and by 17 in grades 7-8.”

Each student enrolled in local classrooms brings an average of $6,000 into district coffers under the state’s “average daily membership” formula.

Schofield cautioned the district’s budget considerations were ongoing.

“We borrowed from our reserves in anticipation of the ‘grand bargain’ funds we have yet to receive,” he said. And “there might be PERS litigation that could have an adverse outcome for us.

“I understand there is a challenge already [on this] to the Supreme Court. The Legislature is confident it will withstand a legal challenge ... but attorneys for the other side claim it won’t.”

Enrollment and the still-sputtering Oregon economy are other wild cards. “We need to keep an eye on future enrollment and the economy, both of which directly effect our funding,” said Schofield.

On the plus side, the district budget is in “good shape,” he said. Schofield’s Oct. 14 financial summary indicated that the district’s current ending fund balance is more than $340,000 above its projected expenses of $3.9 million.

“We know there will be budget changes over the year,” said Schofield. “All we can do is hope we’re in the ballpark. “

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