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Good ideas cost money, too
The House Education Committee has debated several bills that offer ideas to improve Oregon’s schools. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
The State School Fund discussion often gets wrapped up in how much money it would take for schools to keep doing what they are doing now, known as the “current service level.”
But school needs change from year to year, and the Legislature is full of ideas. New or better services cost money, though, and without dedicated funding, they can wreck school district budgets. Education advocates constantly work against such unfunded mandates.
This year, school leaders told the Legislature they need at least a $10.3 billion State School Fund for most districts to avoid cuts in the 2023-25 biennium. Bills that have received hearings this session, though, would add millions of new costs to school budgets.
Legislative Highlights is offering a weekly look at the State School Fund process, “Funding Oregon’s Future.” The picture could drastically change if the Legislature moves forward on well-intentioned but unfunded policies.
The school workforce crisis is at the top of many education-minded legislators’ priority lists. Schools are struggling to fill classified and licensed positions, especially in special education, while current employees are burning out or leaving for higher paying jobs in other fields.
Senate Bill 283 would create a 20% differential for special education staff as well as setting up employment guarantees for classified staff and substitute teachers that could affect contract bargaining and workforce scheduling.
Similarly, House Bill 2690 would require school districts to pay classified employees at least 10% above minimum wage or 15% if they support students in special education. It would also require districts to pay teachers at least $60,000 per year.
Morgan Allen, Coalition of Oregon School Administrators deputy executive director of policy and advocacy, testified against both bills. He said school administrators “fundamentally agree” staff should be paid more. But without extra funding from the Legislature, he said, these bills would force districts to cut staff, programs and other employee benefits to afford the mandatory raises.
Coquille School District Business Manager Jerod Nunn submitted testimony that HB 2690 would be “devastating,” increasing the district’s salary costs 10% of the district’s total budget.
School business officials from around the state concurred the bills would require hundreds of millions of dollars to fully implement.
The pandemic contributed to the workforce crisis, and it has also put a spotlight on schools’ outdated facilities. Senate Bill 414 would require ventilation assessments and carbon dioxide monitors in every classroom, increasing schools’ facility costs.
OSBA Legislative Services Director Lori Sattenspiel said student safety is always school leaders’ concern but statewide policies can have particularly sharp expenses for rural districts that have few if any qualified technicians nearby.
Sattenspiel said the carbon dioxide monitors would cost hundreds of dollars per classroom to buy and install, plus ongoing costs for monitoring that would weigh on small schools’ budgets.
Sometimes legislators just want more information for transparency or accountability, but even that comes with a cost.
HB 2710 would require additional spending reports from schools.
School business officials, whose offices are already depleted by tight hiring budgets, said they would need additional staff to pull out the bill’s requested spending details.
“Our business offices are under water, and they would need additional time, training and staff to be able to do this additional report,” Parasa Chanramy, COSA legislative director, told legislators.
Education advocates agree transparency is essential, but Jackie Olsen, Oregon Association of School Business Officials executive director, told legislators the requested reports would require millions of dollars in additional staff time and still likely wouldn’t provide the picture legislators want.
Even ideas that some districts are already implementing can have grave budget repercussions when instituted as a statewide policy.
HB 2750 would prohibit school fees for students to play sports or engage in after-school activities, and the bill would allow districts to use funds from the Student Investment Account, which comes from the Student Success Act.
Sharie Lewis, Parkrose business services and operations director, submitted testimony that the district’s Student Investment Account money is already paying for a vast array of equity-related staff and student supports as well as athletics access. Without State School Fund dollars, HB 2750 would force the district to cut some of the current Student Success Act work district leaders think most benefit their students, she said.
On Monday, Feb. 27, the House Education Committee held a deep dive on how school funding works. The overriding message was districts weave a complicated net of local, state and federal funds to hold up everything they do.
Mike Wiltfong, Oregon Department of Education school finance and facilities director, told legislators that most school district money is already committed to meeting state and federal mandates, leaving little leeway for additional spending choices.
"If you really look at a district’s true discretionary funding, there’s not a lot of money left over that is … truly discretionary,” Wiltfong said. “Most of it is committed with overhead for facilities, teachers, the basics in order to meet the mandates and have students graduate on time.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA
Previous Funding Oregon's Future stories:
Feb. 28: Revenue forecast puts State School Fund possibilities in focus
Feb. 21: Adequate State School Fund is force for local control
Feb. 13: ‘Total investment’ in Oregon schools doesn’t tell full story
Feb. 6: $9.9 billion State School Fund is better but students deserve more
Jan. 30: Bill aims for true accounting of school funding needs
Jan. 23: State School Fund is education policy made real