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Curbing PERS costs is key to funding schools

As our kids begin returning to the classroom, we will once again be reminded of the significant funding challenges facing schools throughout our community. With shorter school years, bigger class sizes and teacher layoffs, it’s clear local district budget cuts have hurt our schools and our students.

Without a doubt, Oregon must spend more on classroom instruction to ensure a world-class education for our students. However, our options for increasing education funding are limited because of our state’s prolonged economic downturn. The Oregon Legislature has already raised income and corporate taxes, yet these tax increases didn’t generate as much revenue as those lawmakers expected, didn’t prevent education budget cuts and arguably hurt our economic recovery.

To increase education funding, there are options beyond raising even more taxes on Oregonians. As a first-term state representative, I voted with Republicans and Democrats to eliminate dozens of unfunded state mandates that have been placed on our education system. The legislature should not serve as a statewide school board, but should give our school districts increased flexibility to balance their own budgets and reduce administrative overhead.

But the legislature can go even further to increase classroom funding. We should begin to take a serious look at PERS, the state pension system that continues to consume larger shares of school district budgets. It was reported this year that Forest Grove School District’s required contribution to PERS increased by 160 percent and these costs will go even higher. In fact, it is the biggest cost driver facing our local school district. Overall, PERS costs grew by $1.1 billion this biennium alone.

Something must be done to contain these growing costs and reduce the statewide $16 billion liability that’s now threatening education and other essential services, such as public safety and programs for senior citizens. Fortunately, there are solutions.

I support Rep. Jason Conger’s School Savings Act, which offers specific and comprehensive reforms to the pension system. The legislation could save school districts an estimated $500 million per biennium, money that can be used to help restore programs and reduce class sizes.

There are more options that are worthy of consideration, including bipartisan legislation that establishes a funding index linking the yearly percentage increase in the state school fund to the percentage increase in salaries and benefits of school district employees. As my colleague, Rep. Mark Johnson argues, Oregon provides no guidelines to school districts as they negotiate cost increases, even though the districts depend on state funding to cover these costs. This solution would give school districts a way to negotiate fair contracts that protect classroom funding and prevent unnecessary cuts.

As the only CPA in the Oregon House, I’ll continue digging deep into budgets to eliminate wasteful spending. However, we owe it to our kids to pursue major reforms to maximize classroom funding. Providing proper funding for education attracts the best educators and creates top-tier schools. Providing a better education to our children creates a better educated population, providing more opportunities to our community as a whole.

Republican Rep. Katie Eyre represents Hillsboro, Cornelius and Forest Grove in the Oregon House of Representatives.



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