As the dust settles from the whirlwind of another school year startup here in rural Oregon, I’ve been holding my breath to see how the deep state budget cuts made last spring are going to impact my two teenagers’ schooling.

From my standpoint, staff, parents and students are doing their best to keep programs intact and classroom instruction quality high, though the system is strained to breaking point.  And we are going more and more often to our own family pocketbook to help sustain programs that used to be taken for granted.

Here’s how the crisis in public education funding in Oregon is playing out in Sisters for the 2011-12 school year.

  • The elementary school principal position was eliminated, with responsibilities for parent relations and basic staff coordination transferred to a lead teacher, who doubles as a kindergarten instructor.
  • With administrative staff whittled to bone, the district superintendent has assumed new responsibilities such as cleaning the men’s bathroom, performing teacher evaluations at the elementary school, and answering phones, since he has no longer has a secretary.  He is also responsible for implementing the new Chalkboard planning grant.  Reports are that the few still left on staff at the district office are working before sunup until late hours to cover the work of three RIFed staff members, on top of their own workloads.
  • The part-time coordinator for our district’s highly-regarded Aspire program, a volunteer-based mentoring program to help high school upperclassmen and -women make post-graduation plans, was RIFed.  Fortunately, public outcry resulted in school administrators and a private philanthropist cobbling together enough grant money to continue the program, at least for this year.
  • The pace of fundraising has picked up.  For school year 2011-12 our family has participated in three car washes, an evening benefit and auction, and a golf tournament…set up a bed-and-breakfast for quilt show visitors… waited tables at a community dinner…made two direct contributions to teams…and canvassed local merchants to solicit items for an auction basket—and this is three weeks in.
  • Sports programs are perhaps the most impacted by defunding.  Our middle school transferred responsibility for teams to the local parks and rec district, and can’t afford a soccer program.  The high school is considering the same change in management of athletics.  A portion of bus transportation costs for athletes to travel to away games must now be covered by parents.  The high school athletic director position was cut to part time, with team scheduling, coaching oversight, and other responsibilities transferred to the football coach.  Salaries of coaches have been reduced, and pay-to-play fees jacked up by 50% to $150 per sport for high school athletes, with a family cap of $800. For families with kids on club teams (which are not supported by any school funding, such as lacrosse and equestrian), the costs will be an additional $200+ per sport when those seasons roll around.
  • With several teaching positions cut, some teachers were reassigned to cover gaps (sometimes in subject areas they have not taught for several years), the middle school lost six electives, and high school counselors have been tasked with more co-curricular activities outside their core job descriptions.   The alternative schooling program and online remediation programs for underachieving high schoolers were also axed.

There are bright spots. The elementary school has moved to a blended grade model, in which students of sequential grades are grouped (grade 1 with grade 2 students, grade 3 with grade 4 students).  This ideally will provide opportunities for advanced students to move through material at a faster pace.

And thanks to a community that is one of few in the state to repeatedly support a Local Option, our schools have limited the kind of programmatic and personnel cuts that lower school quality for the long term.  The ten percent of the budget this levy provides has helped the district keep core class sizes manageable, avoid adding more periods in a day so teacher caseloads are also still relatively manageable, and continue funding of teacher professional development time.  Plus, in a district with a reputation for them, art and music are still part of the curriculum, though with reduced availability.

One more cause for optimism in our family is that my career-transitioning husband is now a fully-fledged teacher.  A former high tech executive, Rob completed his Oregon teaching licensure this past June, with certifications in middle and high school science and math.  After a discouraging summer with full-time, Central Oregon teaching openings few and far between, he scored an 11th hour interview in mid-September at a Redmond middle school, and is now teaching seventh and eighth grade science and remedial reading. More on his experiences as a second-career teacher soon.

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One Response to “The defunding of public education: how it looks on the ground in a rural district”

  1. kona says:

    Merry Ann,

    Thank you for the status report. As you suggest, there are many areas of the state that are suffering to a greater degree. What are the solutions? It mostly starts with money and the economic viability of Oregon. Is it time the economic direction in Oregon is changed? Are the politics of Oregon hindering Oregon’s economic prospects? The per capita income for Oregon has been in a decline for the last 15 years. Oregon is now entrenched in the lower half of states for personal affluence. At the same time, Oregon has spent more on K-12 education (per student)than almost all states in the western half of the United States. According to the National Education Association Research, only Wyoming, Hawaii, Minnesota, New Mexico and Montana spend more per student (“Public School Revenue Per Student in Average Daily Attendance, 2009-2010″) than Oregon of all states west of the Mississippi River.

    The problem that I see from the data is that about 20 years ago there was a programmed decision (that hasn’t been challenged) that Oregon would spend more per education employee than most states in exchange for fewer educational employees (larger class sizes), deferred maintenance and shorter school years. This has been all but impossible to turn around given the political climate in Oregon. The problems that you clearly outlined will continue, and perhaps be exacerbated, in the years to come unless Oregon changes this economic direction. Oregon cannot afford to compensate as an affluent state while being very average or in the lower half of states in per capita income.

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