Olsen and Kennemer answer questions in Canby
Senator Alan Olsen (R-Canby) and State Representative Bill Kennemer (R-Oregon City) in late April held a town hall meeting at the Canby American Legion Post, billed as a chance for citizens to talk about wide-ranging subjects, but most of the evening ended up focused on the state's education spending.
Olsen said he "had a bill called education first" that he introduced earlier this year. The proposal is two-fold.
First, State Joint Resolution 020, co-sponsored on February 1 by Sen. Republican Leader Ted Ferrioli (R-John Day), calls for an amendment to the Oregon Constitution that would force all legislators to appropriate funds for Oregon's K-12 system by the 65th day of every regular session, held in odd-numbered years, or else they would not be paid until doing so.
Second, Senate Bill 671, dated Feb. 20, appropriates $9.523 billion to the State School Fund, which is about $200 million more than the legislature allocated for 2015-17.
Olsen said Gov. Kate Brown's 2017-19 budget calls for $8.1 billion to fund public schools. However, a report submitted by Gov. Brown to the legislature that's published on the State of Oregon's website, Oregon.gov, shows Brown wants to allocate for education about $10.22 billion of the state's overall $20.72 billion budget — an increase from the $9.3 billion approved in the 2015-17 state budget.
Olsen said the reason he "started so high" with his call for $9.532 billion in education spending is because he wanted to start a conversation, and he wanted school systems to come to him and ask, "How can we get the job done?"
"You know what the answer was?" Olsen asked the audience. "Nothing. Silence. The answer was silence. School boards didn't come and say they needed the money. The ODE (Oregon Department of Education) didn't come in and say, 'This is what we need to be where we want to be. I found it interesting a state senator puts out a bill for $9.5 billion and not a single person from the school board system came in and said, "How do we get there?' These are the dollars we need to put into education so these kids have a good job and the education they need to get them. Where was the school system?"
Olsen said that right now school systems are demanding raises in taxes but with the state's current budget, also projected at $20.7 billion by the Oregon Legislative Fiscal Office -- Olsen said it was $29.9 billion -- there should be enough funding "to squeeze out enough from that $29.9 billion budget."
Troy Soles, a teacher at Canby High School and the local union representative for Canby School District (CSD) teachers, said he wished Olsen would have contacted him because that evening at the town hall was the first he's heard of it.
"You and I and (Canby School District Superintendent) Trip Goodall met in early December and we stressed how important it is that at a bare minimum we get the governor's projected amount with no significant cuts," Soles said.
Canby schools are coming off a good year. Despite reduced funding, CSD closed the achievement gap more than 21 percent for Hispanic students, 11 percent for students with disabilities and 5 percent for those economically disadvantaged, in addition to increasing the graduation rate for the overall population, Soles said.
He said that while legislators are trying to settle the state budget by July, fiscal years for school districts begin on July 1. That means in Canby, and elsewhere, school boards are trying to finalize budgets for the 2017-18 school year without having a clear idea of how much funding they will receive from the state.
"Salem is pushing us off a cliff," Soles said. "Fifty-three percent of our general staff has 15-plus year's experience, which makes us strong as we are, but these people have worked the last eight to 10 years without a cost-of-living increase. They've gone backwards against in inflation during the last 10 years. We've done everything we can to protect students in this district from the (funding) hits they take.
"I wish you would have got a hold of me," Soles continued. "I'm going to respectfully challenge you saying, 'where were the schools.' I was there (meeting with you on this very subject), the superintendent (Goodall) was there and I would have pushed as hard as you wanted to push. I wouldn't even have known about this meeting tonight if someone hadn't told me."
Olsen said the Oregon Education Association, which represents teachers across the state, knew about all of the education bills "that were dropped."
"If they did not send you the information, I would say they did not do their job," Olsen said. "Schools are being pushed at $8.4 billion on the Republican side, $9.7 million is the model; that's why I came in at $9.5 billion. I want appropriate jobs that pay $30-$35 an hour (because then) we'd have the (tax) base to put back into education. We drive (large corporations) out of our state; we lost that base, although we have a robust economy. A 9 percent increase is a robust economy."
Mike Zagyva, president of the Canby school board, who did not attend the town hall but when later asked by the Herald about Olsen's comments that no school boards came to the senator asking for funding, replied: "As a school board, we always appreciate any support from the Salem legislature," Zagyva said. "Unfortunately, we were never officially contacted nor received any specifics regarding the proposed bill, and in researching emails from the Oregon School Board Association, I could not find any mention of the bill either."
Another audience member asked if Olsen's education first bill, (SB 671), had a chance of being reintroduced. Olsen said, "We had until April 18 to get a public hearing and a work session, unless we send it to (the) rules (committee). Bill (Kennemer) is on the rules committee but all my bills are dead; they wouldn't even give them a public hearing."
Kennemer said his priorities are funding education first and early to allow school districts to plan ahead. He also wants to focus on funding health care and corrections, as well as an operating an efficient government to get a good bang for our dollar.
An audience member told Kennemer he wants to see spending cut, not taxes increased, which received resounding applause from the audience, and Kennemer said he and Olsen support that idea.
"One exception would be a transportation package," Kennemer said. "I think most of us have sat on I-205 long enough, and other places. We could hold the line and still serve everyone well; it's a matter of prioritizing."
Kennemer essentially wrapped up the evening saying that this is his second term in Salem -- he spent years serving on the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners -- and that back in the 1980s when he started in government there were a lot of elected officials who had business backgrounds. Today, many state legislators are elected as advocates for different causes who don't have business backgrounds.
"Government is about doing things mostly we can't do for ourselves, like building roads" Kennemer said. "Mostly, we need government to organize schools. I really think we need to talk to friends and families about their votes because we believe in and what we think is how we vote. As parties become majorities they have agendas and I find (this trend) distressing, personally. I worry about our 14 grandkids."
Both representatives said they are here to talk to constituents any time. To contact Olsen visit his state webpage at www.oregonlegislature.gov/olsen or call 503-266-5499. To contact Kennemer call 503-986-1349 or visit his state webpage at www.oregonlegislature.gov/kennemer.