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Oregon schools at a tipping point


Two vastly different headlines have fueled public discussion about K-12 education in recent weeks. From my perspective as a school superintendent, one issue is critical to making our schools better, while the other threatens to make school improvement efforts impossible.

I am encouraged by the state of Oregon's focused approach to improving public education. Through the Achievement Compact, the state is asking school districts to define key measures of success in student learning. Districts will be held accountable for that work through yearly reporting.

Instead of getting bogged down in the intricacies of the No Child Left Behind Act, Oregon is working to simplify what we measure so educators can focus on those areas that are the most reliable predictors of student success.

However, as the state renews its efforts to focus schools on increased student achievement, headlines document the painful decisions school districts are making because of reduced funding. Across the state we hear of the layoffs of hundreds of teachers, cuts to school days, teacher strikes and school closures.

In the Gresham-Barlow School District, reduced state funding led to challenging negotiations that resulted in teacher salary concessions so the district could stay within its budget.

The community has high expectations of our schools. It should. Students graduating today require a more rigorous educational program to be successful whether they go on to a university, attend a professional-technical program or enter the work force.

The problem: Severe underfunding of education in Oregon coupled with dramatically increasing retirement costs (PERS) are creating conditions in which increased student achievement may not be possible.

In the Gresham-Barlow School District, because of decreased funding and large increases in PERS obligations, we now educate our 11,500 students with 176 fewer staff than we did four years ago. That is a 20 percent reduction in teachers, support staff and administrators.

We also have cut 18 school days over three years and reduced or eliminated a number of important programs and educational opportunities.

Even with severe reductions in staffing, programs and school days, the Gresham-Barlow School District has seen improvement in its graduation rate and many other educational measures - impressive results in light of our reality.

But our educators cannot continue to meet higher expectations if things do not change.

Schools in Oregon are at a tipping point.

Without increased state funding and relief from PERS rate increases, we will tip away from a focus on educational excellence and tip toward a year-to-year survival mode.

Our schools need more than just stable funding. We must have increased funding to meet the increasing and appropriate expectations defined by the Achievement Compact.

We must have enough funding to return to a full school year, add back staff and restore needed programs. Flat funding for K-12 education is no longer acceptable.

A contentious negotiations process and teachers strike prompted school staff, parents, students and community members in the Gresham-Barlow School District to invest a great deal of time and energy communicating with the school board and district leaders.

I now ask members of our community to share their hopes and dreams for our schools with those who represent us in Salem.

Schools in Oregon are at a tipping point. Which way we tip will be determined not only by our efforts to improve our schools, but by whether we as a state make a conscious and determined decision to reinvest in our K-12 educational system.

Jim Schlachter is superintendent of the Gresham-Barlow School District.