This fall, every school district in Oregon will compile data about their educational needs so they can apply to get their share of money from the recently passed Student Success Act.
The Hillsboro School District is gathering community input to help shape its application to the Oregon Department of Education, which will dole out Student Success money in the form of grants. The district — Washington County's second-largest — has already received almost 3,000 responses to an online survey asking parents and faculty how they want the additional money to be spent.
Although officials at the district are excited about the funding and the amount of feedback they've received in the early stages of the process, the new money comes after a decade of almost continuous budget cuts.
District officials say people's expectations about the improvements the funding will produce for students should be tempered by context.
When funding from the Student Success Act's student investment account kicks in next year, Hillsboro schools expect to receive nearly $17 million.
Between 2008 and 2018, however, the district's budget declined by more than $63 million, according to data collected by the district. That amounted to 18 fewer days of school for students.
This year, schools in Hillsboro are operating with an over $9 million cut from the previous year.
Travis Reiman, Hillsboro's assistant superintendent for academic services, said the funds will produce tangible benefits for students, but he added a note of caution.
"It's within the context of large reductions in K-12 funding over the last decade," Reiman said in an interview.
On Oct. 8, the school district held a public hearing as part of state-mandated outreach to collect comments about how Student Success money should be spent. About 15 teachers and parents spoke.
Teachers described how thinly stretched they feel and the impact it has had on students. They told administrators how important it is to reduce class size, adding that they don't feel like they have the ability to ensure a quality education for all of their students.
"I've seen the huge impact that class size can have on a classroom," said Sarah Miller, a first-grade teacher at Rosedale Elementary School. "It's hard to build relationships when you have 30 to 40 students in a class, and to build those relationships with the parents."
Miller also highlighted an issue that came up repeatedly during the hearing: Fewer counselors and specialists in schools prevents kids from getting the educational and emotional support they need.
Jill Golay, president of the local teachers' union, the Hillsboro Education Association, said she spends a lot of time fielding concerns from teachers around the district. Teachers tell her they're in dire need of more support, she said.
"What I'm hearing is that it feels different this year," Golay said. "It feels different because we just don't have the funds right now. I think that counselors, social workers, getting back our speech teacher that we lost because of funding, some of those outlying things that are so critical and important that really help teachers in the classroom succeed."
Golay also urged people at the hearing to volunteer in classrooms.
"Please do, because the teachers really are in crisis," she said.
Multiple parents of students with special needs said their children are often the ones who feel funding reductions the most.
The Student Success Act requires districts to collect information about historically marginalized groups in their communities. At the hearing, faculty members urged administrators to think creatively about how to engage with families who have been left out in the past.
Reiman said the district is intent on collecting comments and data about how marginalized groups can be better served. He said the statements at the public hearing about how Student Succes money should be spent were consistent with the data collected through the online survey, which is currently available on the district's website.
The survey asks people to rank their priorities within four main categories: health and safety, class size, well-rounded education and instructional time. Those categories are set out in statute as part of the Student Success Act, representing the areas on which Student Success money can be spent.
Reiman said the next step is to ask for feedback through focus groups. He said the district will seek input from student and parent groups, as well as committees that focus on the needs of Latino students, students with special needs and other populations.
"We're creating focus groups out of those as well so that we're reaching groups of students and asking specifically for the purpose of the SSA and our (continuous improvement plan)," Reiman said.
All the information the district collects will be included in its continuous improvement plan, which the district will refer to when applying for Student Success grants this winter.
"Districts will have to answer the questions how will reduction of class size or how will any expenditure from the student investment account help with mental health and behavior, how will it help eliminate disparities in achievement," Reiman said.
How the district spends almost $17 million will be determined by the feedback it receives this fall, Reiman said.
"There has been a lot of work in Oregon put toward a quality education model," Reiman said. The quality education model (QEM) was developed by the state as a research-based tool to estimate the level of funding required to meet Oregon's educational goals.
"This level of funding from the SSA, student investment account, is a positive revenue stream toward that QEM," he said. "It doesn't accomplish what's recommended."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.