Carolyn Ortman is frustrated.

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Hillsboro School Board member Carolyn Ortman makes a point during the education funding summit.

The longtime member of the Hillsboro School Board says the annual ritual of slashing school budgets has become so engrained in Oregon that most people are no longer outraged.

“I’m sad about the complacency our communities across the state have come to expect” from school districts. “Cutting days is the norm, and we’ve allowed the issues to make us settle for less. We’ve lost track of the fact that these students have one opportunity for a good education.”

Ortman isn’t alone.

Last week she and representatives from every school district in Washington county — from Sherwood to Banks — plus five local legislators, met in Forest Grove to generate a common voice for change to Oregon’s K-12 funding formula.

Set aside the infighting about Oregon’s Public Employee Retirement System and property taxes, they said. Suspend the squabbles about how to divide the state revenue pie between prisons and human services.

“Tonight we hope to walk away with a plan so we can speak to the legislature with a united voice, rather than all of us trying to go it alone from each district,” said Forest Grove School Board Chairwoman Alisa Hampton, who anticipates similar meetings in future weeks. “I think things are at a tipping point.”

After dinner, a panel discussion and small group conversations, the room came up with a nine-word focus question they hope will guide discussions in the state capitol as the 2013 Legislature moves more fully into floor debates next week: “What do our schools need to do for kids?”

Gov. John Kitzhaber’s 2013-15 budget, released Dec. 1, increases state school aid by 8 percent to $6.15 billion.

That sounds encouraging, until you look at the cost of state pensions.

PERS rate is due to jump from 11 percent to 29 percent in July, Green said.

The governor is calling for $865 million in savings by curtailing cost-of-living increases and closing a benefits loophole for out-of-state retirees. But if those talks stall, the PERS increase could severely hurt individual district budgets.

Sen. Bruce Starr of District 15 said he was “frustrated” that the dual issues of PERS and the state corrections system “get thrown into the mix” with education funding. He added that a full discussion of the issues is likely to push the session into overtime.

“I wouldn’t rule it out,” said Starr, a Hillsboro Republican. “I lived through five (special sessions) in 2002.”

If an extended session is what it takes, several educators indicated they’re fine with that.

“Something has to give,” said Sherwood School District Superintendent Heather Cordie. “I find it discouraging that I’m getting really good at thinking about what a budget reduction process is supposed to look TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - School district leaders from across Washington County met with lawmakers in Forest Grove last week to talk about K-12 funding concerns.

“We need to have kids at the center of our thoughts. There’s nothing about the present model that is OK.”

In Forest Grove this year, “we’ll be cutting another $2.5 million to $3 million,” said Superintendent Yvonne Curtis, who sits on the Oregon Education Investment Board created by Kitzhaber. “We’re a school district that has worked very hard to close the achievement gap, and we’ve done that at our high school. We’re very fearful of slipping backward.”

Hearing from retirees

Sen. Betsy Johnson, whose district includes the western edge of the county, predicted “a very rough session,” at least partly due to disagreements about PERS.

by: TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Beaverton School Board Chairwoman LeeAnn Larsen listens to state Sen. Betsy Johnson during a meeting about K-12 school funding.“I’m already hearing from retirees,” said the Scappoose Democrat. “That debate is going to be acrimonious and difficult. There are huge changes in public safety that have put legislators in the position of saying ‘it’s either prisons or kids.’ This discussion on gun control could easily derail the conversation.”

But Rep. Ben Unger, a Hillsboro Democrat, circled back around to large class sizes after hearing from a number of board members and superintendents.

“I’m new, so I just spend a lot of time knocking on doors and talking to parents,” said Unger, who represents Forest Grove, Cornelius and western Hillsboro in District 29. “Recently I was in a fourth-grade classroom at (Forest Grove’s) Harvey Clarke Elementary with 33 kids and one teacher.

“One of the kids read to me (but) he was struggling. If I wouldn’t have been there with him, he would have given up because he didn’t know the words. It was the first time I saw what kind of impact this lack of funding has at the classroom level.”

Banks School Board member Richard Bowden said that in his district, at least one second-grade class had 38 students. Banks Superintendent Bob Huston went a step further.

“I’ve never quite seen anything like this in my 40 years in education,” he said. “We have 10 furlough days for all staff and we had 10 last year. We have no place else to cut. Everybody’s feeling the pain — it’s a real test of resiliency.”

In Beaverton, said Superintendent Jeff Rose, “We have some classes at 60 at our high schools. It isn’t working.”

Political strength

District leaders also lamented Oregon’s tax system and its drag on efforts to keep up with federal and state education mandates.

“We’re talking, but we’re not having the right conversations,” said Rose. “We’re here talking about paying for something that should be a basic right for kids. I hope someday we have the political strength to change the way we fund education.”

He found a receptive audience with Rep. Joe Gallegos, the new Hillsboro Democrat.

“I had 40 years of being a professor of higher education,” Gallegos said. “I say we start with early childhood education. How do we evaluate what we’re achieving? Not just catching up, but really excelling.”

Rose, who’s in his second year at the helm of the state’s third-largest school district, called Oregon’s K-12 funding a “shrinking pie” whose dollars are not keeping pace with new, often unfunded, mandates.

“The overall (budget) number goes up, but it doesn’t go up in accordance with costs,” Rose said. Thinking “outside the box” came up more than once at the meeting, first out of the mouth of Forest Grove School Board member Kate Grandusky, who spearheaded last week’s gathering.

“We can’t keep doing what we’re doing now,” she said. “My vision was to get people together to look at different ways to move forward. I think this is a beginning. I have hope.”

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