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School leaders hope governor's plan doesn't hold water

Oregon may be coming out of its recession, but local education advocates say Gov. John Kitzhaber is unfairly treating schools like they still need to be cut.

Photo Credit: FILE PHOTO  - UtterbackSuperintendent Matt Utterback said Oregon’s education funding deficit is substantial, and the governor’s proposed 2015-17 education budget is inadequate to prepare North Clackamas School District students for the demands of college and careers. 

“The current proposed K-12 budget of $6.9 billion would once again require our school district to make cuts to our educational program of approximately $4 million, further eroding our educational system and wiping out the gains made the past two years,” Utterback said. “With state revenues projected to increase by double digits, K-12 education should not be in a position of making reductions.”

Gladstone Superintendent Bob Stewart, whose district had to cut 15 percent of its staff between 2009 and 2011, agreed that not investing back is “just wrong.” Kitzhaber’s number is a 3.4 percent increase over what was provided to K-12 schools in the current biennium, but the governor proposes to prioritize early-childhood education, including full-day kindergarten, at the expense of students making their way through the upper grades.

Photo Credit: FILE PHOTO - Stewart“The proposed budget by the governor is woefully inadequate, and in schools throughout Oregon it would cause massive reductions nearly parallel to 2011-12,” Stewart said. “No one does early childhood education the way Gladstone does, and no one would support the governor’s vision for early childhood like we would. But we have to have the same vision for K-12.”

Utterback also supports Kitzhaber’s effort to direct state revenue at early-learning initiatives, saying if each student leaves third grade reading at grade level, they will graduate from high school. 

“Getting students to kindergarten ready to learn is essential and supporting early learning initiatives like pre-school and parent-as-first-teacher are a key to making that happen,” Utterback said. “However, support for early learning initiatives should not come at the expense of funding kindergarten through 12th grade.”

Alternate proposals

If Kitzhaber wanted to leave funding levels flat for K-12, he should have put the number at $7.02 billion, which takes into account an annual 2 percent inflationary increase. After you take out the $220 million for full-day kindergarten from the governor’s budget, the increase for K-12 funding is less than 1 percent. Statewide it would take $7.5 billion to provide full-day kindergarten and continue to provide education at the current levels, said Stewart, the past president of the Oregon Association of School Executives.

“We know that because we spent a lot of time talking to school districts throughout the state,” Stewart said.

The full force of the recession hit education in 2011-12, on top of the cuts they had already made for the 2009-10 budget. In order to balance their budgets, school board members had to close schools in North Clackamas and Oregon City, and tight budgets forced class sizes over 40 students in Gladstone, as well as the other two school districts.

In tandem with the rest of the state, the three local school districts have made modest returns toward pre-recession levels.

Over the past couple of years, for example, Gladstone was able to restore 11 of its 15 furlough days, reduce student fees substantially, provide more materials for schools, and stipends for teacher leaders. Over the last 24 months, Gladstone’s John Wetten Elementary adopted new literacy textbooks. While the district was able hire back more than 10 teachers, 105 teachers this year have to corral about 200 more students compared to the task of 108 teachers during the 2008-09 school year.

“We added positions back, but we’re still way below the ratio of staff to kids than we were for 2008-09,” Stewart said.

Kitzhaber’s budget seems so divorced from the reality of school funding that many local leaders don’t see any reason to engage with it seriously. Officials in Oregon City and Gladstone declined to calculate what would happen if the budget passed as Kitzhaber proposed.

“His budget is not going to stand, so it would be a pointless exercise that raises the alarm of parents and staff in a way that we don’t need to do,” Stewart said.

Legislature could take action

Officials at the Oregon City School District think of the governor’s budget more as a way for him to highlight his own initiatives. Nate Roedel, OCSD’s chief finance officer, spoke with the school board at two meetings this month, and they decided “not to put many resources” into thinking about what would happen if the governor’s budget were enacted.

“In my experience, and history shows as well, we don’t hang our hat on his budget,” Roedel said. “It’s more of a starting place for lobbying activities and legislative discussion, and we really look forward to the co-chairs of the Ways and Means Committee for the number that they’re going to propose to the Oregon Legislature.”

This is the time we should be investing in education, education leaders say. And if we’re not going to invest now as the economy recovers, they ask, when will we?

“Every legislator ran on a platform that education is a priority, so we expect the Oregon Legislature to fulfill that promise,” Stewart said. “School districts throughout the state are united on this.”

Stewart and other education advocates point to Oregon’s Quality Education Model showing what schools would look like if they were adequately funded. There’s more than a $2 billion difference between how schools should be funded and current funding levels, Stewart said.

“If you truly want the best for our kids, then we have to consider what that looks like, and that means thoroughly trained people in our schools in a ratio that makes a difference for our kids,” Stewart said. “It’s woefully inadequate that we would even contemplate that we would do less than what we’re doing. It’s defeating.”

Utterback points out that about halfway toward a Quality Education Model could make a big difference for schools next year. A state K-12 funding level of $7.875 billion would provide the school district with a full school year and restore nearly all of the teaching and administrative positions lost during the recession. 

“This funding level would significantly lower class sizes, extend the amount of instruction time students would receive, and provide intervention and enrichment support to students,” Utterback said.

During the 2008-09 school year, NCSD employed more than 950 teachers, but budget cuts between 2009 and 2012 eliminated more than 250 teaching positions. In the past three years NCSD has restored 75 of those teaching positions, but remains 175 teachers short of restoring the full teaching staff. Administrative staff has been cut in NCSD by nearly 25 percent, or more than 20 positions, during the past five years without any restoration. 

At the peak of the recession, NCSD also used 14 furlough days to balance the budget and remains three school days short of a full school year. To restore the lost teaching positions and a full school year, the school district would need an additional $17.5 million beyond its current state allocation.