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Lawmakers, not school panels, must craft long-term budget solutions

It is school budget time in Oregon, as you can easily tell by reading your local newspapers. The political posturing in the media by the individuals and groups that have failed to address school funding issues over the last 20 years in Oregon begins anew, with their annual spin on school funding and the start to lay the media groundwork for their usual kick-the-can-down-the-road solutions to a continual problem in our state.

Recent public comments all too clearly set the stage for what will likely be another round of reductions in our school funding process. Gov. Kitzhaber has stated that the “entire enterprise of public education is underfunded at all levels.” Tell us something we don’t know.

In the same address, the governor points out painfully that retirement costs alone will drive up K-12 spending by $500 per student while the cost of salaries and other benefits will drive up costs another $430 per student. So we, as Forest Grove School District Budget Committee members, can expect a labor-related increase of around $930 per student for the next budget biennium.

Enter the often-repeated mantra of Public Employment Retirement System reform, coming out of both branches of state government in this current posturing. The most likely scenario for any level of PERS reform, at best, will not address these continuing cost escalations. The current 8 percent investment guarantee for PERS recipients and our continuing lagging economy will ensure that the system will reach no level of sustainability any time soon.

Even if the Legislature reforms the Public Employees Retirement System, we are still looking at a 20-year period before any changes lower the per-student-cost of PERS.

State Rep. Ben Unger, whose district covers western Washington County, recently noted that “the Hillsboro and Forest Grove School Districts have cut two weeks of school because of budget shortfalls in the past two years.”

In a guest column for the Forest Grove Leader, Unger added that “finding the money for a full school year is the responsibility of every member of every budget committee. Every budget should be as lean as possible with the hope that every service, especially our schools and our kids gets the support they deserve."

Rep. Unger, it is the responsibility of the Oregon Legislature and the governor’s office to adequately fund K-12 schools based upon Oregon law. Both branches have failed miserably in that attempt in the past, and based upon the governor’s recent statements, I see no reason to hold out hope that will change this year or any year soon.

If you honestly think that local school administrations and budget committees have not pared budgets down as lean as they possibly could with the given levels of state funding, then you clearly do not understand the school budget process. If our PERS costs are another $500 per student, that translates into an increased cost to our Forest Grove School District of at least $2.4 million.

When our state can allow a public retirement system to consume an additional $2.4 million dollars out of a school district budget, you have failed as lawmakers and you have failed our children. When a state can pay a college football coach $2.8 million per year and yet force a small local school district to absorb an additional labor cost of $2.4 million dollars, then something is seriously wrong in our state.

When 90 percent of school budgets are for labor, a $2.4 million-increase is going to cost teacher jobs. Every cut is going to impact the classroom. Oregon already has a low on-time graduation rate. Further reductions in classroom spending are surely going to drive that graduation rate even lower.

Rep. Unger, you and I had a brief conversation about last summer at the Forest Grove Farmers Market when you were campaigning for office. I said this was the number one priority that will face the Legislature this session. You said you would work on it if elected. I think to fully understand the situation that budget committees, school boards and school administrators are in these days, you should attend some of our budget committee meetings.

I have served more than 10 years on our budget committee. Our work primarily has been focused on cutting budgets over that time. That cutting process in itself is a failure of the system to adequately address basic school funding levels. The citizens of this state, the parents and grandparents of school-age children are tired of the platitudes and rhetoric coming out of Salem in regards to school funding. This has gone on way too long and needs to stop now.

When Nike recently requested additional tax breaks, the governor quickly summoned the Legislature to Salem and lawmakers passed such legislation in one day. Can finding a solution to our school funding issue be that much harder, or can we expect the Legislature to continue to ignore the much larger problem of school funding?

If nothing is done, this state is looking at a catastrophic failure of the school funding system and the resulting educational quality for K-12 schools in the next 10 years. The blame will clearly lie upon the executive branch and the Oregon state Legislature, not on the budget committees, school boards and school administrators.

Dale Wiley is a member of the Forest Grove School District Budget Committee.



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