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Lawmakers: take challenge and fix PERS

By Mark Garber

Guest Editorial

The school year has begun and teachers throughout Oregon are scrambling to find space in their classrooms — and in their heads — for 30-plus students per class. Perhaps the pressure that’s building within public schools is finally prompting Oregon legislators to make hard choices to free up more dollars for K-12 education.

That outcome is still not certain, but anyone who takes time to observe what’s happening in their local schools should come away motivated to do something to relieve the load. What lawmakers can do is respond positively to a plan put together last week by Gov. John Kitzhaber and legislative leaders to approve further PERS reforms and modest revenue measures.

In its regular session, the 2013 Legislature enacted changes to the Oregon Public Employees Retirement System that will reduce costs, but it did not go far enough. As a result, school districts in throughout Oregon continue to feel a financial squeeze that’s due in large part to unsustainable PERS-related increases. When legislators regroup in a Sept. 30 special session, they should approve more robust PERS reforms — along with targeted tax increases — to relieve class sizes this very school year.

The measures being discussed could produce hundreds of millions of dollars for K-12 education, community colleges and a few other state programs, with most of that money coming from PERS savings. Normally, the Democrats who control both legislative chambers would be eager to add substantial funding to the school budget, but they also are hypersensitive to public employees’ natural desire to protect their pensions.

What everyone must understand, however, is that further delays in PERS reforms will mean fewer teachers, larger class sizes, more furlough days and continued financial problems for schools. The outlines of a deal include a more rigid cap on cost of living increases for PERS recipients. On the other side of the ledger, various tax ideas have been discussed, including a 10-cent hike in the tobacco tax and phasing out some personal exemptions for higher-income earners.

Republicans are instinctively resistant to tax increases, but some party leaders have signaled they are willing to act if the “grand bargain” in the making also includes substantial PERS savings and tax breaks that will help small businesses.

Earlier this week, Kitzhaber brought together leaders from both parties to reach general agreement on a compromise that puts the needs of Oregon first. Slowing the growth of PERS will be a gift to Oregon schools that will keep giving for decades. Yes, there will be court challenges, but that’s not a reason to neglect the inevitable need to alter PERS for the long term.

When you consider Oregon’s ballooning class sizes — already among the largest in the nation — the only rational response is to take immediate action to help children in school today. That requires movement from both Democrats and Republicans, and a recognition that they have a rare opportunity to reverse a downward spiral in Oregon education.

Mark Garber is the president of the Pioneer’s parent company, Community Newspapers Inc.




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