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Students open Capitol eyes to real effects of school budget decisions
Coquille School District Superintendent Tim Sweeney (from left) and high school juniors Lucas Dane and Sammie Huffman share the school-level impacts of State School Fund decisions with Gov. Kate Brown on Tuesday. (Photo by Rachel Baker, OSBA)
Classes too crowded for learning. Students in desperate need of counseling support. The Legislature’s school funding proposal would have devastating real-world impacts, Coquille students and parents told the governor in an emotional meeting Tuesday.
A Coquille School District delegation met with Gov. Kate Brown as part of OSBA’s Lobby Days, which give education advocates the opportunity to meet personally with education decision-makers.
The Joint Ways and Means Committee co-chairs’ 2019-21 budget framework, the basis for state spending decisions, proposed $8.87 billion for the State School Fund, $100 million less than the governor’s budget proposal in November.
That difference translates into a $300,000 reduction for the Coquille School District, according to Superintendent Tim Sweeney, the 2019 Oregon Superintendent of the Year. Sweeney told the governor that the district would have to consider cutting a part-time counselor and a part-time math teacher position.
“We are really concerned with the co-chairs’ budget,” he said before the meeting. “We’ve made some gains. It would be a shame to go backward.”
The Legislature is still working out exactly how much it will put into education. The Joint Committee on Student Success is crafting a revenue proposal to create a School Improvement Fund of about $2 billion for the next biennium. OSBA’s Oregonians for Student Success offers tools and resources to help education advocates press for stable and adequate funding for schools.
Brown told the Coquille group she is committed to increasing the State School Fund to $9 billion and adding an investment package worth up to an additional $2.5 billion for education, including early learning.
The district south of Coos Bay has more than 1,300 students enrolled in four schools serving pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. It has posted strong graduation rate numbers in recent years and added an alternative high school and early childhood program.
Lucas Dane, a junior at Coquille Junior/Senior High School, shared stories of crowded classrooms in past years in which he struggled to get needed help. He told the governor that the co-chairs’ budget would increase the high school’s average math class size from 20 students to 30 students, making it difficult for teachers to answer questions and grade homework.
Parent Katherine Domenighini shared how a school counselor has helped her son work through some school-related anxiety.
“One (counselor) gets cut, then it’s going to be a huge effect on the kids that we have in the school district,” she said through tears.
Coquille junior Sammie Huffman said students are dealing with issues such as suicide but the district is short on counselors. She said teachers and students are not equipped to help young people with their struggles.
“I don’t know what to do when a friend comes to me crying with an issue I don’t know how to help,” she said.
Coquille High Principal Jeff Philley said after the meeting that new school resources had allowed the district to help students who might have otherwise slipped through the cracks. He said that with the county’s help, the district had added a mental health therapist. He said he didn’t know how he had gotten by without one.
“We are seeing younger and younger students who need more mental health support,” Philley said.
Coquille School Board Chair Misty Thrash said she joined a school board because she thought her children could be better served. Then she discovered the reality of Oregon schools.
“Lots of times our hands are tied,” Thrash told the governor. “We can’t do things because there is no money for it.”
Thrash said after the meeting that social and emotional health is a high board priority. But when budgets are tight, counseling positions can be among the first things to go as districts try to protect core classes.
As part of the Lobby Day, the group had a series of meetings with legislators. Thrash said it was important for education advocates to have their voices heard in the Capitol.
“If nobody comes to talk, nothing happens,” she said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA