School district passes budget

The North Wasco County School District 21 budget committee approved an optimistic budget last week that assumes the Legislature will increase its funding for schools.

The $44.9 million budget anticipates the Oregon Legislature will bump its proposed two-year funding for all state K-12 schools from its current level of $7.8 billion to $8.1 billion.

The D21 budget is up $1.6 million from the current budget, but most of the increase is eaten up by $880,000 in increased costs for PERS, the public retirement system, and $240,000 in increased health care costs.

The budget includes new staff, but those are due to grants or funding created by voter-approved ballot measures. Measure 98 provided funding for programs, including career and technical education, and this budget adds 2.5 FTE in teaching staff at the high school.

Also added is money for teacher training for English learners, provided through a $180,000 grant.

Three new bus monitors will escort special needs students on buses, with 70 percent of their wages being covered by state transportation funds.

In all, total FTE, or full-time equivalent positions, is 365.7 district-wide, up from 359.8.

The budget increase includes $319,000 in increased salary, including step increases and the new hires.

D21 Superintendent Candy Armstrong spoke forcefully of the need, she said, for citizens to reach out to legislators and encourage them to increase school funding.

She encouraged people to visit Oregon Rising.org, a public outreach effort of schools to gather citizen input.

If the Legislature does not increase funding from $7.8 million to the widely expected $8.1 million — which many districts are budgeting at— then the district would have a $1 million shortfall and would have to lay off seven teachers, one administrator, one to three classified staff, cutting three to four days of school, and make cuts to sports and other activities, Armstrong said.

That would put the district back to the cuts it experienced with the recession, she said.

Armstrong said Oregon schools felt the pinch when the recession hit, but “what we’re not participating in is the recovery.”

District Chief Financial Officer Randy Anderson provided a graph that showed school spending is getting an ever-shrinking percentage of the state general fund and lottery budget.

Schools got 44.8 percent of that money in the 2003-05 biennium and 38.9 percent under the governor’s proposed budget.

Anderson believes it is reasonable to expect the Legislature will increase to the $8.1 million school funding level.

In the current biennium, statewide school funding is at $7.4 billion. The proposed $7.8 billion is an increase, but it is not enough to cover new retirement and health care costs, Anderson said.

He said he prepared a budget assuming an $8.1 billion state fund because, “8.1 allows me to prepare a no-cut budget.”

Schools also have less financial information from the state than they normally do at this point in the year, Anderson said. Normally the state has released four or five estimates of the size of the state school fund by now, but so far only one has been released.

He said it could be late in the summer before final numbers are known. He wouldn’t be surprised if the Legislature requires a special session to finalize its budget.

The state is grappling with a $1.7 billion shortfall, caused largely by growing retirement fund costs for public employees.

Armstrong said Oregon is 39th in per-student spending in the nation. Even bringing funding up to $9.97 billion would only put Oregon in the middle of the pack nationwide in per-student spending, she said.

Anderson said school years are so much shorter in Oregon than the rest of the country that by the time an Oregon student finishes 13 years of public education, it equals only 12 years elsewhere.

“It really is time to take action right now,” she said of reaching out to legislators. “Hearing from voters, that’s what moves the dial,” Anderson said.

She said the district continues to achieve — the high school’s most recent graduation rate was a whopping 83.2 percent, surpassing the state average – but the work is “not sustainable.

“People are wearing out. We have large class sizes, we’re tight on material…the stress and strain are starting to take its toll.”

Katie Ortega, a teacher and a parent, at Dry Hollow Elementary rose to speak and said she hoped she wouldn’t get too emotional.

She spoke of the effects of large class sizes on students and teachers.

This year, she has 28 students in her class. Next year, her class is projected to have 34.

She said 30 students is “my tipping point” and at that level, “it becomes crowd control.”

Budget committee member Jared Sawyer said he volunteers in his child’s classroom at Col. Wright Elementary. “I don’t know how those kids learn anything and I don’t know how the teachers keep their sanity.”

Ortega spoke of the added time with larger classes for grading papers and doing conferences, the necessity of squeezing more students into the same square footage, and the loss of effectiveness of teaching students in small groups.

“The number of minutes of my devoted attention, my classroom budget, our shared materials, and technology are all affected by class size,” she said.

“I truly believe that when class size increases, the quality of teaching goes down. I consider myself and my colleagues highly qualified, passionate, and persistent educators, but at some point the scales tip and you cannot ask any more of us,” she said.

She said her own son will be heading into the crowded fourth grade. “He deserves more; more of his teacher’s time, more resources, more space, and more constructive feedback. Just like every other student in his class.”

Budget committee member Jon Farquharson said Pendleton schools had announced they would be adhering to the state estimate of $7.8 billion and have announced layoffs.

Armstrong said most districts are going with the $8.1 billion estimate, and the reason for that, is that going down the $7.8 billion road “you start creating a reduction in force plan, you start messing with people’s lives. We don’t feel it’s time to give up hope.”

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