Budget writing committee shuts out school board members
The voters’ stamp of approval seems to disqualify school board members from telling legislators how to spend Oregon’s money.
The Joint Committee on Ways and Means held a series of public online meetings about the proposed 2021-23 budget. These virtual-roadshow hearings were scheduled on weeknights and Saturdays to enable robust public turnout. It seems the turnout was too robust for legislators.
At the beginning of the April 21 hearing, the third of five, Co-Chair Sen. Betsy Johnson announced: “This meeting is well oversubscribed, and we will not be able to hear from everyone. … We have intentionally decided not to call on a number of elected folks.”
Beaverton School Board Chair Becky Tymchuk testified at the first hearing April 14; other school board members were shut out.
In the 2017 Multnomah Education Service District special election, more than 55,000 people voted for Helen Ying, and she prevailed in a three-way race with 48% of the vote. That same day, in an election for the Parkrose School Board, Sonja Mckenzie won with more than 59% of the votes cast. That same day, Sami Al-AbdRabbuh won a Corvallis School Board seat with more than 66% of the votes cast.
Those elections apparently precluded Al-AbdRabbuh , Ying and Mckenzie from testifying last week as they had planned. Mckenzie is the OSBA Board vice president, Al-AbdRabbuh is president of the Oregon School Board Members of Color Caucus and Ying is a caucus officer.
Al-AbdRabbuh, Ying and Mckenzie are representative of the more than 1400 school board members across Oregon. Board members live and work in local communities, where they volunteer to go through the elections process to a position that is often contentious and always pays nothing. They do it because they are passionate about education issues. The election process certifies them as representatives of their communities and their public education districts.
Ying and Mckenzie signed up ahead of time for the meeting and prepared remarks. They devoted time to be at-the-ready and away from family in front of their respective computer screens.
They could have told legislators exactly how the proposed $9.1 billion 2021-23 State School Fund would lead to losses of days and staff in their districts. They could have explained to legislators why $9.6 billion is necessary to continue the good work going on in schools.
Instead, they were silenced, and legislators and the public did not get to hear the case for a State School Fund that pays for current service levels.
“School Board members are the largest body of elected officials in the state who are directly responsible for reviewing and finalizing school budgets for the 197 districts around the state of Oregon,” Mckenzie said. “We simply are asking for what is required to adequately fund our schools so that they can do the important work of educating Oregon’s children. Listen to us and help us do the work we were elected to do: provide the best education for our students “
For Al-AbdRabbuh, this prohibition meant he did not even get a chance to get started. He was planning to testify during the April 22 budget hearings but was told that he would not be called on to testify. He said he feels this missed opportunity acutely.
School board members, he said, “elevate the voices of students and teachers.” He said school board members can tell legislators exactly how many teachers and school days might be lost at $9.1 billion.
“I don't want to tell our teachers, ‘Sorry, the government didn't pass a budget to maintain them,’” he said.
This prohibition drew a swift response from OSBA Board President Maureen Wolf and Executive Director Jim Green. They sent a letter to House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney describing “surprise, and frustration” at hearing that legislators will not allow school board members to testify on the budget. This “forced silencing of locally elected board members,” the letter says, “is not only unprecedented – it is simply outrageous. “The state’s K-12 public schools,” the letter says, “represent the single biggest segment of Oregon’s budget. Schools are Oregon’s largest employer.
"The future of more than 560,000 students – taken together, a city the size of Salem, Eugene, Gresham and Hillsboro – rests in the hands of this legislative committee. Turning a deaf ear to the needs of our students runs contrary to democracy and is out of step with Oregon principles.”
Courtney said he had no response to the letter. Co-Chairs Sen. Betsy Johnson and Rep. Dan Rayfield and Kotek did not respond to requests for comment.
Co-Chair Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward told OSBA the choice to prohibit elected officials and governmental affairs professionals was deliberate.
“Ultimately, local school and ESD boards have strong representation in Salem and better access to us than everyday Oregonians,” she said. “These hearings are intended to hear from everyday Oregonians who do not generally have as easy access to legislators.”
Steiner Hayward said legislators are happy to hear from board members by email or through OSBA or they can schedule a time to talk with the co-chairs of the Joint Ways and Means Education Subcommittee.
- Richard Donovan
Legislative Services specialist