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School board service gives legislators unique perspective on funding needs
Four state legislators in 2019 will be pulling double duty as school board members.
Their volunteer school work will make for some long days balancing that responsibility with their legislative demands in Salem, but they say they are committed to building a better education system for Oregon’s students.
Oregon’s Legislature has more than a dozen members who have backgrounds or current professions in education, including teaching, administration and Oregon Department of Education positions. Many are former school board members.
The four legislators who are current school board members are Rep. Carla Piluso, D-Gresham; Rep. Cheri Helt, R-Bend; Rep. Diego Hernandez, D-Portland; and Sen. Rob Wagner, D-Tualatin.
They offer colleagues a unique and up-close perspective on revenue reform, cost containment and accountability as the Legislature wrestles with the future of Oregon schools in 2019.
Rep. Carla Piluso, D-Gresham
Carla Piluso was elected to the Gresham-Barlow School Board in 2009, following a 30-year law enforcement career that culminated with her becoming Gresham’s first female police chief. Her only child, Kate, was a high school sophomore at the time.
As police chief, Piluso worked with teachers and schools to support and engage students, particularly ones facing challenges such as poverty. When she retired in 2008, she saw an opportunity to continue that mission with the school board.
Piluso says she approaches volunteer school board work by gathering information to understand an issue’s inner workings, then being willing to push for change.
The Legislature was her logical next step to advocate for education, and she was elected in 2014.
“Being a legislator has been a tremendous opportunity to engage in strengthening our state and our kids,” she said.
Last session, Piluso was vice chair of the House Early Childhood and Family Supports Committee, and she is passionate about early education efforts.
“The younger we can start them, the more opportunity for success they will have,” she said.
Piluso said she is encouraged by Gov. Kate Brown’s emphasis on early education, and said revenue reform is necessary to increase education funding. Piluso, the longest-serving legislator among current school board members, plans to use her experience to inform other legislators about the realities of today’s schools.
"We know what’s wrong, we just can’t get the funding to fix it,” Piluso said.
Rep. Cheri Helt, R-Bend
Cheri Helt won election to the Legislature in November. She said she wants to keep her Bend-La Pine School Board seat but it will be a challenge to regularly attend meetings in Salem and Bend.
Helt has three children: Harrison, 19; Madeline, 17; and Faye, 8. She joined her school board in 2010 to advocate for instructional technology and because she wanted to lobby the Legislature for more education funding. She has been a strong advocate for classroom technology and student safety.
Helt said there hadn’t been enough state investment in schools during her time on the board so she ran for office.
“I’m tired of lobbying the Legislature for education funding and not accomplishing it,” she said.
Republican legislators will have little clout in the Democratic supermajority-controlled Legislature, but Helt said she wants to work across the aisle.
“I don’t believe education should be a partisan topic,” she said.
Helt favors revenue reform and cost containment that creates a sustainable education funding system. Regarding the Public Employees Retirement System, Helt said the state needs to make sure it can afford both what was promised to educators and to students. She said she will advocate for fully funding Measure 98, which supports career and technical education, dropout prevention and college readiness programs.
She said she favors flexible education investments that also have some accountability. Her work as a school board member will help her consider the ramifications of state policies, she said.
“The important thing I have learned from school boards is watching for unintended consequences,” Helt said.
Rep. Diego Hernandez, D-Portland
At age 31, Diego Hernandez is Oregon’s youngest legislator and one of its younger school board members. But he has a lot of experience already in both arenas.
In 2013, Hernandez joined the Reynolds School Board, overseeing the same district from which he graduated. He was 25 and likely the board’s first Latino member, although the board doesn’t keep such records. Hernandez said he wanted to advocate for equity and communities of color, bringing a different perspective to the board.
Like other school board members, he ran for the Legislature so he could advocate for education at a higher level, and he was elected in 2016.
Hernandez said he wants to see schools funded to the recommended $10.7 billion in the Quality Education Model, a nonpartisan assessment of Oregon’s education needs.
Hernandez is deeply involved in education policy and funding. Last session, he was on the House Education and Revenue committees and the Joint Ways and Means Subcommittee on Education. He is also a member of the Joint Interim Committee on Student Success, which has been working on a roadmap for education funding and reform for the 2019 Legislature. Hernandez said revenue reform and increased education spending will be necessary to fund the committee’s proposals.
“There is momentum around doing something for our education system,” he said.
Hernandez said that as a legislator of color and a school board member of color, he is passionate about trying to amplify the voices of school board members who are trying to make a difference.
“I try to bring in an added lens as a school board member of color,” he said.
School board experience is especially important as the Legislature tries to improve Oregon’s education system, Hernandez said.
“Serving on a school board gives you more on-the-ground knowledge of the realities of the classroom,” he said.
Sen. Rob Wagner, D-Tualatin
Rob Wagner is the only current school board member serving in the Senate. He joined the Lake Oswego School Board in 2017 and was appointed to the Legislature in January 2018 before winning election to his seat in November.
Wagner said he was prompted to join the school board by racial and anti-Semitic incidents at Lake Oswego schools.
“I have to put my energy here to make sure everybody feels included in our public education system,” he said.
Wagner was already deeply involved in education, though. He said his family has teachers and educators “as far as the eye can see,” and Wagner previously worked for the American Federation of Teachers and Portland Community College.
Wagner has four children – Zack, 16; Mia, 15; Carlo, 14; and Alex, 12 – and he said having children in school gives him a valuable perspective. Not only does he live daily with Oregon’s education system, but he also gets to hear personally from other parents and their children.
Wagner was a high school senior in 1990 when Oregon passed Measure 5, the first of the property tax-limiting ballot measures that would hobble Oregon education funding. He said his children’s education experience compares poorly with his.
“We’ve gotten so used to an underfunded education system, we’ve forgotten what it can actually mean to fund our schools,” he said.
Wagner said he will advocate for increased education funding and he considers the upcoming session as the best chance for revenue reform in decades.
He said school board member advocacy would be crucial. He encouraged school board members to build relationships with legislators, to invite them to schools and introduce them to parents, because many legislators don’t have children in school.
“It’s not enough to show up a couple of times during the legislative session,” he said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA