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Reinvesting in education

Calling it a “standing room only” crowd would be a wild understatement.

When three area Oregon legislators showed up at Hillsboro’s Century High School last Thursday evening for a town hall on education issues, citizens filled the room, expanded into the aisles and then overflowed into the hallway outside the doors of the 100-seat classroom organizers reserved for the meeting.

A crowd estimated at around 200 showed up to press the case for more education funding in the state’s budget, and the three Oregon legislators present — state Sen. Bruce Starr (R-Hillsboro), state Rep. Joe Gallegos (D-Hillsboro) and state Rep. Ben Unger (D-Hillsboro) — pledged their support.

All three legislators pointed to Gov. John Kitzhaber’s proposed budget for the upcoming biennium, which, if approved, would provide $6.75 billion for K-12 education. The lawmakers see that amount as inadequate to meet the needs of school districts around the state.by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - State Rep. Joe Gallegos responds to a question from one of the dozens of citizens who turned out to discuss education in a March 21 town hall forum at Century High School. Seated next to Gallegos are state Rep. Ben Unger (center) and state Sen. Bruce Starr.

“I don’t support the budget from the governor, and I don’t support it because it’s too low,” explained Starr. “We have to prioritize education. This budget means more cuts. It’s way past time we stop reductions.”

“The money challenge keeps me up late at night,” added Unger. “The challenge for us is, how can we do better?”

Gallegos said he believes nothing is more important to his constituents than funding for education.

“When I knocked on doors last fall during my campaign, education funding was the main issue,” Gallegos said.

PERS conversation ‘difficult’

Given the current necessity to have schools close on certain days as a cost-saving measure, one man attending the forum asked the three legislators how they could support the governor’s call to provide $6.75 billion for schools.

Sen. Starr’s response was emphatic.

“I won’t,” Starr responded. “If it’s not enough money, I’ll vote no.”

Starr pointed out that Republicans in Salem are proposing to set aside $7.5 billion for education, but the Republican plan relies on reforming the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) to free up additional funds.

“The PERS conversation is a difficult one, to say the least,” Starr said.

Unger agreed the budget as currently outlined does not provide enough for education, but he added that a “balanced approach” is essential to finding a fix.

“The path to a balanced approach has to include shared sacrifice from corporations and the wealthy,” Unger explained. “Someone making $1,500 a month will struggle if they lose $100 a month, but most are willing to do that to help out because they recognize we’re in trouble — but only if others, who won’t miss $100 a month, put some skin in the game as well. The debate will be around what is the right balance.”

Hillsboro resident Ken Jackson said he and his wife retired in Hillsboro to be near their grandchildren, who are students in the Hillsboro School District.

“We’re concerned about what’s going on,” Jackson told the legislators. “What I don’t see is legislators making education a priority. We want you to take this message back to Salem: whatever else is out there, none of that matters until public education is resolved.”

In response, Unger pointed out that the state used to spend 43 percent of its budget on education, but it’s gone down to 38 percent over the last 10 years.

“If only we’d kept that same percentage, we wouldn’t be short now. It’s frustrating,” Unger told the man. “I know we’re not doing enough. We’ve seen devastating cuts in the Hillsboro School District.”

Citing increasingly crowded classrooms and having several days cut from school districts’ schedules to save money, Unger said he worries some parents may move away from Oregon to a state that offers better educational opportunities for their kids or enroll them in private schools.

“It’s frightening. That shouldn’t be the choice they’re forced to make,” Unger said. “That’s what we are working on, and we’ll definitely take your message back with us to Salem.”

‘Disinvest in education’

Starr said he was determined to find a way to boost the amount of money available for education.

“It’s up to us to point out that $6.75 billion will continue to disinvest in education,” Starr said. “We have to build a broad enough coalition to make clear that $6.75 billion is not enough.”

Starr noted that despite their competing party labels, the three legislators representing the Hillsboro area strongly agreed on the need to prioritize education funding — and he said he was hopeful a bipartisan solution can be hammered out on a statewide level.

“We wear different uniforms,” Starr said. “But I believe the opportunity to work across the aisle is available to solve this challenge and reinvest in the education system we need.”

Gallegos urged those in the crowd to keep pushing the issue.

“We need your help,” Gallegos explained. “Help us keep the pressure on. We’re in this together.”

At the end of the meeting, which lasted close to 90 minutes, Janeen Sollman, chairwoman of the Hillsboro School Board, urged those in attendance to stay involved.

“By being here in a packed room, you are sending a message that you care about educating our children,” Sollman said “It’s really important for you to be here and it’s so important for you to continue this message. There is strength in numbers.”

Unger said he believes the funding issue is having a direct impact on the future of the state’s schools, and that finding a solution is critical.

“This weighs on me,” explained Unger. “I want a school budget that doesn’t cut days and doesn’t lay off teachers.”



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