Failed funding promise adds to anxiety for wildfire-hurt districts
Enrollment at Talent Elementary School in the Phoenix-Talent School District fell after last year’s wildfire destroyed a significant portion of the area’s housing. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
Two weeks into this school year, Talent Elementary Principal Heather Lowe Rogers had to reassign teachers to other schools and rearrange roughly 40 students’ schedules because her school didn’t have enough students for its staffing level.
The Phoenix-Talent School District had expected enrollment at the elementary school to drop from its pre-2020 wildfire levels, but not from more than 400 to around 315. Lowe expects more students to enroll as housing is completed nearby, but with so many families in temporary housing, other students will be leaving.
“This is a roller coaster,” she said.
Legislators missed a chance earlier this year to smooth out the ride, and now administrators in the three districts hardest hit by the fires are facing months of extra anxiety.
The Oregon wildfires last September destroyed the homes of hundreds of students in the Phoenix-Talent, Santiam Canyon and McKenzie school districts. They’ve all seen precipitous drops in enrollment as displaced families have been unable to find housing to move back.
With the students went significant portions of the school budgets, ratcheting up the stress of superintendents already trying to navigate a pandemic.
House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney promised in a June letter to address the issue in 2022. But district leaders have already been told once they would be taken care of, and it’s hard to trust again.
District funding is based on the highest enrollment number from this year or the previous school year. All three districts saw their funding cut because their enrollment fell in that time.
Legislators drafted a bill last session that would have maintained pre-fire levels of the schools’ funding through at least 2025. The three districts passed budgets based on their pre-fire enrollments, but then the funding bill died in committee.
Not only did they not receive hundreds of thousands in general fund money, but they also received less in grants tied to enrollment, such as High School Success and the Student Success Act.
Now all three are tearing through reserve funds, anxiously awaiting the Legislature to meet again in February and make them whole.
Kotek and Courtney could not be reached for comment.
OSBA has been meeting with legislators and education advocacy partners to assure the districts will be taken care of in the short session. OSBA Legislative Services Director Lori Sattenspiel said the Legislature could create a new bill or add the funding to a budget bill.
The Coalition of Oregon School Administrators has a commitment from Kotek and Courtney to address the funding protections in the short session, said Morgan Allen, COSA deputy executive director of policy and advocacy.
“Our conversations with other legislators about the need for legislation are also overwhelmingly positive, and we are confident we can get this passed in February,” Allen said.
Damage is already done though.
Santiam Canyon’s enrollment fell from 605 before the fire to 525 now. Superintendent Todd Miller said funding for his district east of Salem is down almost $500,000 and that does not count High School Success and Student Success Act money.
The district will be in deep trouble next budget cycle if the Legislature doesn’t offer support, he said. Even if they do, the district has already lost out on grant money, and it won’t see the state funds until March when it’s late in the year to start up a program.
“We’re taking a second beating,” Miller said. “We go through one of the biggest disasters in the state and already feel forgotten.”
McKenzie’s enrollment has fallen from 220 before the fire to 170, according to Superintendent Lane Tompkins. Its allocation is based on 199 students right after the fire.
He said the district east of Eugene will be cutting it tight to get through March and it will be disastrous if the Legislature doesn’t come through again.
“It’s one more level of stress that it would be nice not to deal with,” Tompkins said.
He knows his district may struggle to regain its former enrollment, but he is hoping for some breathing room so the district can mindfully rescale.
Since the Almeda fire, Phoenix-Talent’s enrollment has fallen almost 300 students to about 2,200, according to Superintendent Brent Barry, although some of those losses are because of COVID-19 disruptions as well.
Barry said the southern Oregon district is seeing the most losses in elementary and middle schools. Phoenix High School’s enrollment has been flat. High school students can access more transportation, and with the finish line in sight, many students and families want to stick it out in the district.
With students readjusting to school while still dealing with the trauma of the fires, COVID-19 and a disrupted school year, Barry sees one silver lining in the lower enrolment – at least for the start of the year.
“We know that the smaller classes sizes are coming at a good time for our kids to get individual attention,” he said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA
Monday: A year after Oregon wildfires, schools bring comfort and painful reminders