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Nation's third richest district not immune to funding woes


Class sizes to rise as district cuts budget

by: LAKE OSWEGO REVIEW - Riverdale Grade School

Ranked one of the richest public school districts in the nation by the 24/7 Wall St. blog, the Riverdale School District plans to cut its budget for the 2012-2013 school year with uproar from parents.

The school district is raising class sizes and going to two-grade blended classrooms at the grade school, allowing them to achieve efficiencies with teachers as well as to recruit more tuition students to bolster their budget.

Riverdale, which includes the small unincorporated part of Multnomah County north of Lake Oswego called Dunthorpe, only has 552 students — only 59 percent who live in the district.

“Our funding fluctuates depending on enrollment, more so than other school districts because of the tuition and transfers,” said Riverdale Business Manager Kathy Rodeman.

It relies on its strong academic programs to attract nonresidents who can pay tuition and help to strengthen its offerings.

“We’re losing families because of this. We’re a public school that relies on out-of-district families, so we have to provide something different than those neighboring districts,” said Jennifer Novack, a parent with four children in the grade school. “The community is really upset because we all moved here for small class sizes.”

The school district raised average class size targets to 25 at the first and second grade, 26 at third and fourth grade and 27 at fifth through eighth grade.

“The board took this action to promote enrollment growth and provide greater scheduling flexibility as class sizes change, as well as to ensure ongoing fiscal stability for the district,” the board wrote to its patrons in June.

Former class sizes were set at 22 for kindergarten and first grade, 23 for second and third grade and 24 for fourth through sixth grades.

The board’s letter said that if the district can recruit four more students in first and second grade and seven in third and fourth grade, it would open additional classrooms.

The board held a special session on June 26 to hear from patrons.

With the new changes to the grade school, the district will be spending 11 percent less on elementary teachers, while 42 percent of the budget is going to support services, said Novack.

The district could make efficiencies by cutting its $118,000 technology budget or forgoing some of its $100,000 for marketing. Novack even noted that the substitute teaching budget could be tighter since the district hasn’t historically spent as much as is budgeted.

“If you divide our total budget ... it’s not that we can’t afford teachers, it’s that we are choosing not to put our money in instruction,” she said.

Novack compared Riverdale to Corbett School District, which is another small district that has achieved nationally recognized results. Unlike Riverdale, however, Corbett doesn’t spend nearly as much on its students.

“They have just maximized just as much as they can to put all the money into their instruction,” said Novack.

The 24/7 Wall Street writers found that the school districts with the wealthiest parents also tend to spend more money per student, though it did find some anomalies. The study analyzed median household income from 2006-2010 of 10,000 school districts and ranked the top 10 wealthiest. Riverdale is the only one that is not a commuter community of New York City. Ranked third, Riverdale’s household median income was nearly $200,000 and almost 60 percent of Riverdale households earn at least that amount.

Of the 10 wealthiest listed on the blog, Riverdale has the lowest percent of funding coming from local sources with 76 percent. Riverdale spends $16,807, according to the 24/7 Wall Street blog.

The other schools in the top 10 had total spending ranging from $18,047 to $27,980 per student.

Rodeman explained that the figure includes construction costs for the new grade school in addition to the operating expenses. Originating with the National Center for Education Statistics, the number was calculated from the 2008-2009 budget. The figure includes $3,331 per student that is construction cost, said Rodeman.

Unlike larger districts, which can use economies of scale to maximize the state dollar, Riverdale faces some special challenges because of its small size. The state funds about $8,400 per resident or transfer student, which amounts to $3.45 million in next year’s budget for Riverdale. The national average is $10,500 per student.

In many communities across the country, the funding is based on property taxes, so the wealthiest communities receive better funding. Though this isn’t exactly true in Oregon because of Measures 5 and 50, which sought to limit the amount a school district could tax locally, communities are still able to take local option levies to the voters, which, if passed, provide a small amount of additional local funding.

In Riverdale, the local option levy brings in $450,000 — $16,000 less than last year and continuing to fall as properties are valued at less than they were before the market crash of 2008. The levy’s lower yields, which have had a downward trend the last four years, put a pinch on the budget.

Since the amount local option levies can raise is limited by law, Riverdale School District also has a local foundation that encourages donations by parents to supplement the budget. Suggested amounts for the latest annual campaign are $3,000 per student for a resident or transfer student and $500 per student for a tuition-paying family. On average, the district raises $750,000 each year; this year it raised $805,000.

Riverdale also expects to have 129 tuition students next year that will bring with them $1.47 million. The projection for next year is a slight decline of 13 students, which has a budget impact of $150,000.

Students in grades 1-4 are charged $11,120, while kindergarteners owe half of that. Grades 5-12 students pay $11,950. The district sees its biggest population of out-of-district students at the high school level, where 75 students are tuition.

It also takes transfer students — based on certain conditions — who can bring the state’s per student funding with them. Next year the district also expects to have 98 transfer students.