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Budget woes catch up with Hillsboro schools

by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Superintendent Mike Scott meets with students at Witch Hazel Elementary School. Hillsboro, like other districts, will grapple with funding this year.Last year, Hillsboro was one of the only local school districts that avoided teacher layoffs in response to the state’s K-12 funding shortfall.

This time around, Gov. John Kitzhaber has proposed to fund K-12 schools at $6.15 billion plus $253 million in anticipated Public Employees Retirement System savings that would go toward hiring an additional 500 teachers statewide.

In fact, Kitzhaber went so far as to say that his Nov. 30 budget proposal is “first and foremost an education investment budget.”

So why are local school districts, including Hillsboro, feeling like they’ll be left in the lurch?

Kitzhaber’s proposed funding level — which will be impacted by many factors by the time the dust is settled — leaves Hillsboro with a gap of about $10 million for school year 2013-14, according to Superintendent Mike Scott.

While it’s still early, district leaders have begun to use that stark figure as a baseline for potential cut packages.

“The low-hanging fruit was gone two years ago; it’s just getting deeper and deeper,” says Beth Graser, Hillsboro School District spokeswoman. “We’re trying to step up our advocacy efforts because this is the start of a new (budget) biennium. It’s a good opportunity to reconsider the proportion of the state budget that goes to K-12 education.”

While the politics soon begin to play out in Salem at the start of the 2013 Legislature, Hillsboro school leaders want to make sure the budget they’ll craft reflects community priorities.

“We must let our patrons and elected officials know what the effects of their decisions might be for our district and other districts across the state prior to final budget allocations being set,” Scott reported in his Dec. 6 budget message.

To that effect, the district invited local legislators to hear from Hillsboro school families on Jan. 9 to learn about their legislative priorities. The budget has been part of the series of listening sessions the superintendent has been holding at district schools since the fall. More are scheduled for Feb. 20, April 4 and May 15.

The school district also has a legislative subcommittee in the works to start hosting parent training events — to get residents up to speed on the complicated lingo and landscape of school funding. Those are expected to begin later this month.

Next month on Feb. 18, the longtime statewide Presidents Day rally at the capitol will attract hundreds if not thousands of education advocates from across the state, including Hillsboro, Beaverton and Forest Grove, which may join efforts.

Plans on the block

Last year, Hillsboro schools escaped with less of a burn than surrounding districts, avoiding teacher layoffs. The district had been poised to cut $8.1 million, but ended up only having to chop $7.2 thanks to a last-minute allocation.

That $7.2 million in cuts came from reducing five school days, 10 percent cuts to non-school department budgets, and staffing adjustments that raised class size from a ratio of 29 to 1 and 30.6 to 1.

Two schools also went to half-time principals, and union negotiations with teachers resulted in a delay in their license steps. by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Superintendent Mike Scott visits Witch Hazel Elementary School this week.

This time around, a 40-person budget study team for the district has been meeting since the fall to consider out-of-the-box ideas, Graser says.

While nothing specific has been laid on the chopping block, she says, just like last year it’s most likely to be a mix of savings measures. Each teacher costs about $70,000, including benefits, according to Graser. Each school day costs the district $466,000.

If the district is $8 million short, that comes to 114 teachers or 17 school days, but “there’s no way we’d put all our eggs in one basket,” Graser says. “We want to make the most strategic decision possible.”



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