For the first time, Title IA money could be used to lower class sizes in Forest Grove

                   Fresh off their success reducing kindergarten class sizes this year at three Cornelius schools, the new Forest Grove School Board doubled down on the class-size issue at its meeting last Monday, Sept. 25, grasping at a variety of novel ideas to ease classroom crowding elsewhere.

Forest Grove School District Assistant Superintendent John O'Neill is currently preparing a class-size reduction plan to implement across the district over the next three to five years. He'll present it to the board for review in the next few months.

Meanwhile, board members talked about where they could make further cuts this year in order to hire at least a few more staff members.

Kate Grandusky, for example, questioned whether district administrators could have skipped the $18,000 out-of-state conference they attended last month and used that money instead toward partial funding of another teacher.

O'Neill explained the conference and travel was paid for by Title IIA federal funds, which are earmarked for professional development and can't be used for anything else.

Grandusky then suggested scrapping or cutting back on other professional development programs for a single year and using that money for more teachers.

FGSD Chief Financial Officer Tami Montague said there is professional development money in the general fund that could legally be used to hire more staff if that became a higher priority.

But most other professional development funding is just as inflexible as Title IIA, O'Neill said. Title IC funds pay for professional development that will have a direct positive impact on migrant students. Title III money does the same for English Language Learners.

While responding to recent questions from the News-Times, however, O'Neill learned from his Title IA coordinator that this year, for the first time, Title IA funds can be used to address class-size reduction — a change made under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

Each school's principal gets to decide how to use Title IA funds to best meet their instructional needs. Most use them for reading specialists, intervention curricula and instructional assistants. But the money is now available for new teachers, O'Neill said.

Districtwide, that's $1.8 million this year.

Board members also asked about money from the Northwest Regional Education Service District (NWRESD), an agency that provides low-occurrence, high-cost services — everything from Outdoor School to programs for students with severe autism — to school districts in Washington, Clatsop, Columbia and Tillamook counties. According to NWRESD Superintendent Rob Saxton, all regional education service districts across the state receive 4.5 percent of the Oregon state school fund. NWRESD keeps 10 percent of that for administrative costs, distributing the rest to school districts in its territory — $1.88 million in the FGSD this year.

Of that, 25 percent provides core services such as software, programs and other technology.

The other 75 percent can be used however districts want. Nearly $700,000 is going to crucial services the NWRESD can provide in bulk to school districts at bargain prices: $3 per child for services that might cost $8 to $20 per child elsewhere, for example.

Another $900,000 is already funding various programs and staff in the district's general fund.

According to Montague, that leaves roughly $200,000 from the current-year allocation the district could use at any time for any purpose, including hiring new teachers or adding back Outdoor School (another main goal of the new board).

Hanging over the debate is the district's need to consider the ever-rising costs of the Public Employee Retirement System (PERS).

Montague was not at the Sept. 25 board meeting but told the News-Times later that the district budget has set aside $2 million to help pay expected PERS rates increases for the 2019-21 and 21-23 biennium.

While that money could fund a whole lot more teacher hirings, "If we use the $2 million to add staff now, we will no longer have those funds in reserve" for PERS, she said, which could cause big problems in the future.

The discussion will continue at future board meetings, including the one next Monday, Oct. 9.

By Stephanie Haugen
Reporter, Forest Grove News-Times
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