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By Jim Cornelius
News Editor 

Activists demand more school funding

 

Last updated 3/1/2005 at Noon

Local parents and students went to the Capitol to make their case on February 21. photo provided

A crowd of parents, teachers, activists and school children 2,000 to 3,000 strong hit the Capitol steps in Salem on Monday, February 21, to demand that legislators put away the budget knife when it comes to schools.

Some 50 people from Sisters joined the demonstration under the auspices of the activist group Stand for Children. They met with local State Representative Gene Whisnant and with Senator Ben Westlund to hammer home their message: They want the state to provide $5.4 billion in the next biennial budget for schools to prevent schools from making more cuts.

Governor Ted Kulongoski’s proposed budget offers $5.0 billion, a number which would not allow many districts, including Sisters, to maintain current levels of program and service.

Sisters trimmed five days off its instructional calendar this year and eliminated three teaching positions, among other belt-tightening moves.

Sisters activist Merry Ann Moore said the effort “was a true success in a number of different parameters.”

Not that the group won any assurances about greater state funding.

“I didn’t expect an assurance in that sort of forum,” Moore said.

Success, Moore says, came in impressing uponlegislators how seriously parents and kids take education funding — and in allowing Sisters school children a chance to influence their own fate.

“I think what we did was establish that this is a crisis. School funding is a crisis,” Moore said.

Senator Westlund said that it is vital for constituents to weigh in on a subject that makes up the largest line-item in the budget.

“It was wonderful to see so many people over from Sisters,” Westlund said. “They did a great job in advocating for more K-12 funding.”

But is it effective?

“The answer is a resounding ‘Yes.’ That’s who legislators listen to.”

Westlund said that the opposite, an appearance of apathy, would send a very different message on education funding: “The sound of silence would be deafening.”

A new state revenue estimate released on Saturday offered some relief (see related story, page 7).

The improving statewide financial picture may mean more funds are available for schools. Governor Ted Kulongoski expressed a willingness to use his proposed $5.0 billion education budget as “a starting point,” indicating that the number could be higher.

However, there are many competing needs in the state budget, from health care to police. That’s a problem Rep. Gene Whisnant cited.

“You want the best education bucks can buy,” he said. It’s a question of where the money will come from.

“There’s no support for a new revenue source this year,” he said.

Whisnant said he wants to find “efficiencies” in the system to save money. He shied away from the word “waste.”

When pressed to identify areas of waste or opportunities for efficiencies in Sisters schools or Bend-La Pine schools, Whisnant said, “I’m talking about the overall system, not the Sisters School District or Bend-La Pine.”

Whisnant said he has proposed House Bill 2650 to reform state school funding and eliminate payments for so-called “phantom students.” Such payments allow districts with declining enrollment to claim the previous year’s enrollment for purposes of state funding.

In effect, the state is paying for students who aren’t there.

However, since a majority of districts — some 67 percent — have schools with declining enrollment, Whisnant was not optimistic about the bill’s chances.

Whisnant also noted that overall funding for schools, including local property taxes, has gone up by about $400 million.

Whisnant’s statements raised some questions for Moore, who bristled a bit at the use of the term efficiencies instead of waste.

“I’d like to understand more about the difference between ‘waste’ and inefficiency’ and I’d like to know what districts are reaping the revenue they are talking about that increased for education,” she said.

Whisnant acknowledged the passion and concern of the activists. He said that “we have to prove to the taxpayers who voted down Measure 30 (tax increase) that we are getting the most for their money.

“If we try that and we find that we’re doing everything we can to live within our means and it’s still not enough funds, then I’m not opposed to going back to the taxpayers for tax reform.”

How can Oregon provide stable, adequate funding for schools? Tell us what you think. Submit your comment for web and print publication below.

Author Bio

Jim Cornelius, Editor in Chief

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Jim Cornelius is editor in chief of The Nugget and author of “Warriors of the Wildlands: True Tales of the Frontier Partisans.” A history buff, he explores frontier history across three centuries and several continents on his podcast, The Frontier Partisans. For more information visit www.frontierpartisans.com.

 

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