County districts join forces to shed light on school needs

by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Yasmine Weil-Pourfard, a Forest Grove High School senior, talks about challenges in the classroom for students during a roundtable discussion at the Washington County K-8 Education Forum. School district leaders from across Washington County made sure 10 of their local legislators head back to Salem on Monday with a clear idea of their legislative priorities.

At the top of the list for Banks, Beaverton, Forest Grove, Gaston, Hillsboro, Sherwood and Tigard-Tualatin is legislation to increase and stabilize the State School Fund, including comprehensive tax reform and the effective use of the rainy day fund.

A close second is financial support for statewide initiatives and relief for unfunded legislative mandates, including implementation of full-day kindergarten in 2015 and increasing physical education class time by 2017.

Superintendents and school board representatives gathered Thursday, Jan. 23, at the Beaverton School District Administration Center for the second Washington County K-12 Education Forum with state legislators to continue conversations started in 2013 at a forum in Forest Grove.

They were joined by a handful of teachers, counselors and principals from Beaverton, Tualatin and Forest Grove; Oregon Deputy Superintendent Rob Saxton and members of the Oregon School Boards TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Oregon Deputy Superintendent Rob Saxton talks to Washington County school district leaders about what it will take to ensure students' future academic success.

“We’ve come a long way, but there is still important work to do,” said John Hayes, Forest Grove School Board chairman.

With an estimated 81,000 students in Washington County schools compared to Multnomah County’s 84,000 students, “we’ve got critical mass” to influence what happens in the Legislature and improve funding and education in schools across the state, he said.

“When you have the volume of students we have in Washington County, our voice can be really loud if we unite as a concerted voice on priorities we all agree on,” said Maureen Wolf of the Tigard-Tualatin School Board. “I think it’s really importand for all of us to come together and have that singular voice about the critical need for stable funding, adequate reserves and doing what we need to do for our students.”

To give Washington County’s legislative delegation a clear picture of how their work in Salem affects what happens in schools, district leaders broke into small groups to discuss issues.

A common concern was how school districts were going to be able to offer full-day kindergarten to all students in the fall of 2015, as a result of Senate Bill 248.

“It is a great initiative if it is funded,” noted Hillsboro School Superintendent Mike Scott.

He spoke with state Rep. Jeff Barker, D-Beaverton, about the challenge of districts having to deplete funding for programs benefiting students already enrolled full-time in the system in order to cover the added staffing costs to implement full-day kindergarten across the board.

In addition to requiring more teachers, districts also must grapple with the need for additional space to accommodate classes in schools that are already at capacity, said Lonnie Winkler of the Forest Grove School Board.

“At one of our schools, just as an example, we have three a.m. classes and three p.m. classes,” he added. “We have no place to put six full-time kindergarten classes, and we definitely don’t want 48 students in a class.

“It is hard enough to get 25 kids to pay attention for six hours.”

Similarly, school districts are looking ahead to 2017, when House Bill 3141 goes into effect and schools must offer 150 minutes a week in K-8 physical education instruction, nearly tripling today’s requirements.

“In Beaverton, we learned that in our elementary by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Hillsboro School Superintendent Mike Scott talks with state Rep. Jeff Barker during a roundtable discussion about the challenges of unfunded legislative mandates.schools alone, we would need to hire at least 66 new PE teachers, and that’s only staffing,” said LeeAnn Larson of the Beaverton School Board. “That speaks nothing of the facility needs to get kids through their PE time.”

The staffing cost to fund just the elementary teachers equates to roughly $7 million, according to Beaverton administrators. The facility needs would likely add millions more in order to implement the state law.

“We need to think about the competing forces for our students,” Scott advised legislators. “We place a premium on reading and Science, Technology, Engineering and Math touches in our schools. When you make a decision to increase requirements around physical education, that takes time away from some other area of instruction.

“We can’t do everything well. Districts need broader discretion to determine what counts for PE, because we don’t have the time and resources available to meet the law as it stands.”

In both examples, school leaders and educators support full-day kindergarten and measures to address childhood obesity. They are asking legislators for help to meet the mandates — in funding and flexibility to come up with creative solutions.

The message appeared to hit home with state leaders.

“Unfunded mandates need to be more realistic,” said state Rep. Joe Gallegos, D-Hillsboro.

“We will have to come up with the money,” added state Rep. Margaret Doherty, D-Tigard.

One way to ensure those messages translate to action is a commitment from district leaders and community members to advocate for schools in Salem, Wolf said following the forum.

“Our expectation, given this short legislative session, is about planting the seeds that we’re here and we’ll be back in 2015 during the next budget cycle to say that it is just critical that schools have additional funding,” she added. “While we are grateful for the gains we have made in the past year, districts are not where we need to be for our students.”by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - State Rep. Margaret Doherty says legislators will need to come up with funding to help implement full-day kindergarten in all schools in 2015.

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