House bill would protect budgets for school districts hurt by wildfires
Tuesday, March 30, 2021
Driving from the McKenzie School District to Eugene on Monday, Superintendent Lane Tompkins could see the burned rubble of families’ homes but also signs of new construction.
House Bill 2630, which cleared its first committee Monday, would protect school districts’ enrollment-based funding while their communities rebuild from the September wildfires.
Roughly 10% of McKenzie’s 220 students have left since their homes burned, Tompkins said. For many, there is no place to move back to and no other housing available right now.
The September wildfires stretching nearly the north-to-south breadth of Oregon devastated communities, especially the McKenzie, Phoenix-Talent and Santiam Canyon school districts. Hundreds of students lost their homes and were forced to move away.
School districts have tried to continue to serve their displaced students this year through busing, satellite classrooms and distance learning. Some communities lack housing for families to return, though, and some families are opting to join new school districts.
The sudden drop in enrollment could be devastating for the affected districts’ budgets, forcing deep cuts even as they are trying to find new ways to support their struggling students.
Tompkins said McKenzie would lose about $300,000 if its state funding was based on current enrollment.
“It would be a rollback of a lot of the gains we have been able to make over the past few years,” he said. “Going back to just getting by, that’s not what we want for our kids who are recovering from this event.”
The House Special Committee on Wildfire Recovery on Monday unanimously recommended legislation to give school districts affected by the wildfires some budget assurance. HB 2630 prohibits a decrease in State School Fund distributions based on enrollment for five years. The bill will go to the House Revenue Committee next.
Sonoma County (Calif.) Office of Education Superintendent Steve Herrington has seen multiple wildfires tear through districts he oversees, and he said it tends to take at least two years for communities to start to rebuild.
“Your Legislature needs to protect the districts because it’s going to hurt for some time,” he said.
Hold-harmless funding rules are essential not only for protecting the education of the remaining students but also for the good of the community, Herrington said.
If the state cuts funding, “you’re going to be laying off the same people victimized by the fire,” he said.