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Bill would exempt some school boards from personal financial reports
A new requirement for school board members to reveal their income sources could cripple some school boards, warn administrators and board members in small communities.
Board members say they would rather quit than fill out forms they find burdensome and intrusive. Replacements would be hard to find in sparsely populated areas that already struggle to fill a board.
A bill before the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday could amend the law to provide exemptions.
More than 6,000 state and local public positions, including school district superintendents and business officials, must file an annual “statement of economic interest” report on where they get their income and the property they hold. The transparency is aimed at preventing corruption with those who direct public funds.
A 2022 bill added school board members to the list, starting this year. All current board members must file the forms by April 15 this year. Fines for not complying can be up to $5,000.
Jordan Valley School Board Chair Josh Mackenzie said he doesn’t plan to fill it out and will wait to see what the state does. Mackenzie is a rancher who does some contracting work on the side, which means tracking all his business dealings would require significant filing time.
“It seems like they just keep coming up with more hoops for us to jump through,” he said. “I don’t think it’s relevant to our small district.”
The K-12 district on the Idaho border south of Ontario has about a dozen classroom staff and fewer than 75 students. Mackenzie said everybody in the community knows everybody. If the district tried to hire a person or do work on the school, the community would know, he said.
He said most of his fellow board members have said either they won’t file the report or they will resign.
Senate Bill 292, which contains meaningless placeholder language, awaits a “gut and stuff” amendment that would limit the SEI requirements to school districts with 1,650 or more students or a virtual public charter school. That would exempt 135 out of 197 school districts.
The amendment was discussed Feb. 9 in a Senate Education Committee public hearing. Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane and a Crane Union High school board member, testified his constituents are threatening to quit their boards rather than file.
“Some of our small school districts won’t have school board members unless we make an exception,” he said.
Owens has sponsored a similar bill in the House that put the cutoff at 7,500 students, which would exempt all but 15 districts. The Senate bill was moved forward because it has a better chance of being passed in a timely enough manner to exempt people this year.
Some of the hearing discussion revolved around where to draw the line. Rep. Emily McIntire, R-Eagle Point and a school board member, proposed 5,000 students as the cutoff, which would exempt all but 29 districts based on this year’s enrollment. The Eagle Point School District where she serves has 4,200 students.
Sen. Michael Dembrow, chair of the Senate Education Committee, said 1,650 was chosen because that matches the Oregon Small Schools Association membership criteria. He said that makes more sense than an arbitrary number.
School board members have complained to OSBA about the statements, and OSBA has been working with legislators. OSBA Legislative Services Director Lori Sattenspiel testified in support of the amendment.
The amendment is scheduled for a work session Tuesday in the Senate Education Committee. Dembrow, D-Portland, said the bill needs to be referred to the Rules Committee because there is some concern about applying a different standard to school board members than other people working in small jurisdictions.
School board, however, is an unpaid volunteer role that already requires considerable time and energy, school board members say. Harper School District Superintendent Ron Talbot said he fears board members who have served for decades will just quit.
“If these quality people walk away from my school, there is not a big pool of people who can step in and donate their time for the best interest of the kids,” he said.
Harper, between Burns and Ontario, has 220 students. Many of the parents are ranch owners who work long hours far from town, he said.
Nyssa School Board Chair Susan Ramos is a retired teacher married to Nyssa City Councilor Juan Ramos, who also must fill out an SEI.
Nyssa, south of Ontario, has nearly 1,200 students. She said the statements would be a deterrent in her community for school board membership.
Ramos said her income is none of anyone’s business and the requirement is unnecessary, but she will reluctantly file the form.
“I’m not hiding anything,” she said. “I’m on the school board to help kids.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA