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$9.9 billion State School Fund is better but students deserve more
Gov. Tina Kotek’s State School Fund proposal is an improvement after schools were threatened with a devastatingly low $9.5 billion fund, but at $9.9 billion schools would still face significant belt-tightening for 2023-25.
Education advocates say Kotek’s proposal shows she prioritizes education but it’s not enough. Based on school contract realities, districts need a $10.3 billion State School Fund to keep most districts whole, school business officials say.
“If the state adopted a budget of $9.9 billion, we could see reductions including staffing, school days and other important supports for students,” said Jackie Olsen, the Oregon Association of School Business Officials executive director.
Kotek calls $9.9 billion “a strong start to what will be a critical, ongoing conversation about how to set students up for success across our state.”
The ball is now in the Legislature’s court as it prepares the 2023-25 budget.
Legislative Highlights is offering a weekly look at the State School Fund journey, “Funding Oregon’s Future,” so school board members can be informed about how the state considers their districts’ funding needs. Key to advocacy is communicating to legislators exactly how State School Fund proposals affect students.
A December report from state analysts estimated school districts need only a 2.3% increase to $9.5 billion for them to maintain their current staff and programs. School leaders are telling legislators that number was built on false premises and would lead to perilous cuts.
Even at $9.9 billion, Hillsboro would have a $10.2 million budget gap, according to Michelle Morrison, the district’s chief financial officer. Hillsboro would plug the hole with federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund money, including $3.1 million already budgeted for academic recovery and engagement programs.
“It makes us change what we have in our plans for our kids,” Morrison said.
Like a lot of districts, Hillsboro has already tapped ESSER money to help with underfunding this biennium. Exhausting one-time federal emergency money just delays eventual large cuts.
“Our trajectory is a bad one,” said Morrison. “It will be a cliff for us.”
Big districts, though, have more flexibility in many ways than Oregon’s many smaller and rural school districts.
Michael Carter, Oregon Small Schools Association executive administrator, said that when the budget is short, small districts must lay off staff because they can’t just rely on attrition. Often it has to be teachers because their administrative teams are so small, and often those teachers represent entire programs.
Carter gives the example of his own Lake County School District, where he is superintendent. Lake County built its 2023-25 budget based on a $10.3 billion State School Fund. Every $100 million below that is an $85,000 hit to the district’s budget, Carter said.
With the governor’s budget, the district would likely have to cut its music program and career exploration program teachers, Carter said. Fluctuations in state funding are difficult to recover from because it’s hard to recruit to remote and rural places and it takes time to build up a program, he said.
Like some districts, North Marion would still come up short at $10.3 billion because of other factors in the district, but its business manager says it would be a much more manageable gap. At $9.9 billion, the district is roughly $1 million short of what it needs to maintain staff and services, according to Linda Murray.
The State School Fund discussion starts with maintaining “current service levels,” but many bills in the Legislature are calling for additional services without adding money for them. Murray pointed to bills for higher pay for substitutes, indoor air quality standards and increasing minimum wages for teachers and classified staff as examples.
“Unless they come with money, that is just going to kill our district,” she said. “I assume most districts would be hurt by that.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA
Previous Funding Oregon's Future stories:
Jan. 30: Bill aims for true accounting of school funding needs