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ODE kicks off new study on school district spending

Some feared lawmakers might attack local school board control

The Oregon Department of Education has launched a controversial study of how variations in school district expenditures affect student outcomes such as attendance and graduation rates.

Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, sponsored Senate Bill 1541 early this year to require the study. Hass said the study is intended to parse out how the state’s largest budget line item — education — is spent and how those expenditures affect students in individual districts. The K-12 budget accounts for $7.4 billion of the state budget for 2015-17.

But the proposal stirred fears in the education community that lawmakers have plans to meddle in school district’s local control over budgets.

Former teacher and labor activist Rep. Margaret Doherty, D-Tigard, who is chairwoman of the House Education Committee, said in February that the bill sent the wrong message to elected school boards that state lawmakers don’t trust them to make the best decisions for students in their communities.

School districts receive per pupil funding that is largely equal from the state, based on a funding formula that divvies out revenue from income taxes, state lands, the lottery and other sources. Local school boards then decide how to spend that money.

“Somehow we need to make sense of a system of equalization that results in a system that is so unequal,” Hass said.

While there are statewide minimums for instructional hours, characteristics such as the length of school year can vary widely between districts, Hass said.

“If every district receives about the same amount per student, why is it that the David Douglas School District has 180 days and the Morrow County School District has 150 days?” Hass told the House Rules Committee in February. “Or why is it some school districts spend their K-12 money on college for kids who have finished their requirements for high school? It’s not a bad thing but it is certainly ... outside the K-12 budget parameters that we mistakenly believe exist.”

The study will involve comparing information the education department already tracks on school district spending in instruction, support services, administration, transportation and business services. The department also will examine spending on categories such as staff levels, staff compensation, class size, administrative compensation, student demographics, instructional hours and school days.

“The department has data on district spending by category, but to date, the department has not done a study of how spending varies by category among districts, what factors may be responsible for that variation, and whether the variation is related to school outcomes,” said department spokeswoman Amy Wojcicki. The results of the study are scheduled to be reported to the Legislature by Dec. 15.

There is no cost associated with the study because the department will conduct it with information that is already available, Wojcicki said.

The measure drew strong opposition from the Oregon Education Association, Oregon School Boards Association and others during the 2016 Legislature.

Lawmakers in the House of Representatives who initially opposed the bill indicated they reluctantly approved it 31-25 in March as part of a negotiation to pass a veterans bill.

“It requires the department to determine whether district expenditures are causally related to student outcomes,” Doherty told the House Rules Committee in February. “Nothing in this bill accounts for the differences in local communities. In my opinion, those omissions render the findings of this Legislation irrelevant.”

She later backtracked on that statement after lawmakers agreed to study schools’ expenditures rather than “evaluate” them. As the education committee chairwoman, she presented the bill on the floor. She said she would encourage school districts to use the information for self-improvement and fight any attempts to use the information to undercut local school board decisions.

Other lawmakers welcomed the legislation.

“I think it is good policy asking those questions and collecting that data and help it inform us to make decisions because I have questions about how school districts are spending their money,” said Rep. Julie Parrish, R-West Linn.

The state gave schools a 10 percent increase in funding in 2015. Yet some school districts chose to boost teacher pay by more than 10 percent or add administrative positions while driving up class sizes, Hass said. He declined to name any specific school districts that had done that.

Hass said poor local decisions can give lawmakers pause when they’re considering education-funding increases.

“Every day for a full day of school costs about $35 million per day,” Hass said. “Say we wanted to do 10 more days and add $350 million to the budget. If we just did that, there would be no guarantee that all schools would add 10 more days because they don’t have to, and they might have different priorities, which is fine, but that right there would be sort of an incentive not to go for extra days.”

Rep. Bill Kennemer, R-Oregon City, said local control gives schools the ability to provide an education that reflects their communities’ values and needs.

“That is one of the beauties of local school boards having local opinions, and it makes for a lot more diversity,” Kennemer said.