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Superintendents address business leaders in Portland, say schools tax bill is 'just the floor, not the ceiling'

PMG PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Beaverton Superintendent Don Grotting explains his districts budget process during a Portland Business Alliance forum held May 15. Pictured alongside Grotting is Lisa Riggs of Gresham-Barlow School District, Danna Diaz of Reynolds, and Guadalupe Guerrero of Portland Public Schools.

Public school leaders are praising the passage of a $2 billion school funding package, but they cautioned that the extra infusion of funds "isn't enough."

During a Portland Business Alliance forum Wednesday morning, May 15, superintendents from Portland, Beaverton, Gresham and East Multnomah County gathered for a panel on why Oregon schools face steep cuts to education, despite a prosperous economy.

"Just about every school district...is looking at somewhere between a 6 to 7% increase in PERS," Don Grotting, superintendent of Beaverton School District, told PBA members and guests over breakfast at the Sentinel Hotel in downtown Portland. The Public Employee Retirement System, more commonly referred to as PERS, has been at the center of nearly every discussion surrounding school funding.

"To get a little better idea of what that looks like, almost a third of every dollar coming in right now is going to support the PERS program," Grotting noted of his district, which is grappling with how to cut $35 million from its budget.

The same goes for Portland Public Schools, where "the vast majority of our budget pie goes to staffing," Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero said.

Coincidentally, about $35 million is what Beaverton expects it could get each year when Gov. Kate Brown seals the deal and signs HB 3427 into law. On Monday, May 13, the Oregon Senate passed the tax package, which would generate an estimated $1 billion in additional money for schools each year, by taxing businesses that generate $1 million or more in gross sales. Similarly, state lawmakers are also pushing for major reforms to the state's PERS system.

The panel of four school leaders praised HB 3427 as sorely needed, but Danna Diaz, who oversees Reynolds School District, cautioned the bill is just the start of what's needed to overhaul Oregon's broken education system. Oregon's 2018 high school graduation rate was 78.7% compared to the national average of 84.6%.

"It is not enough, the $2 (billion) investment that the governor is doing," the Reynolds superintendent said. "It is the floor, it is not the ceiling."

Diaz admitted that she still holds a bit of an outsider perspective, having come to Oregon nearly a year ago, but pointed to the state's historic efforts to avoid fully funding what's known as the quality education model, or QEM.

"You invest in what you value," Diaz said. "And that's what your government has done in the state of Oregon. That's why you're getting the results that you have. You have to decide if that's what you want in your community."

"I don't believe there's any cut in education that's good for a child," Grotting said, discussing Beaverton's $35 million shortfall. In that district, teachers are bracing for an estimated 200 layoffs.

In the Reynolds School District, which includes Troutdale, Fairview and Wood Village, Diaz said her district had to dip into budget reserves to avoid laying off teachers, and students will see less supplies and materials in the coming year, due to budget cuts.

Gresham-Barlow School District is still hammering out its budget, but Assistant Superintendent Lisa Riggs said the district is looking at which investments have worked, and which ones haven't shown results.

Portland Public Schools will have to cut about $17 million from its budget next year. Echoing strategies from fellow panelists, Guerrero said the district focused on three key areas when deciding what to prioritize with limited funds, special education being one of them.

"We're making $17 million in cuts and still we're investing $6 million worth of new money into meeting obligations for students with special needs," Guerrero explained. "We think we can do a better job serving them and supporting them."

While some school districts, like Portland Public Schools, have benefited from voter property tax levies to help cover the cost of extra teachers, other areas don't have as many funding avenues to draw from and haven't been able to bridge the gap between state funds and PERS obligations for district employees. Additionally, some schools say much of their funding is tied to student enrollment. When enrollment numbers change unexpectedly, that can have a major budget impact.

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