Town hall tonight addresses education's fiscal cliff

Recently, a friend's nephew called seeking advice on his move to Oregon. This young pathologist is joining a new practice in Vancouver, Wash., but he and his wife wanted to live in Portland and wanted names of good schools for their children. I did some research. I told him about some elementary schools in Portland. But then I swallowed (hard) and said he should consider living in Vancouver instead.

I told him Oregon's tax structure relies heavily on personal income tax, the most volatile of taxes during a recession as compared to property taxes and sales taxes. This problem could be overcome if Oregon put money away when the economy is good and income tax receipts are up. But the kicker law inhibits that by rebating excess revenues to taxpayers, leaving Oregon schools vulnerable in any economic downturn. I told him how badly schools fared the past four years because of the recession. He headed for Vancouver.

If you go

What: Education town hall

When: 7 tonight

Where: North Medford High School Commons, 1900 N. Keene Way, Medford.

Oregon used to be at the forefront of education, both in developing best practices and in outcomes achieved. But decades of disinvestment have taken their toll. Now we are known for other things, such as large class sizes and short instructional time. Back in 1997-1998, Oregon was ranked 15th in the nation for per pupil spending; now we are 33rd, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In the past three years, class sizes have risen 19 percent in elementary and middle schools and almost 29 percent in high schools. Just this week, the Department of Education ranked Oregon near the bottom at 46 out of 50 states for high school graduation rates.

There are multiple culprits. Education is receiving a smaller piece of the pie, in part because of increased spending in categories such as public safety and health and human services. According to the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators, K-12 receives approximately 39 percent of each general fund dollar compared with almost 45 percent a decade ago.

At the same time, cost drivers in areas such as health insurance and PERS continue to escalate. The Medford School District has seen its PERS contribution increase by $3 million in the current biennium, and it is scheduled to increase by another $3 million in the next. That $6 million dollar increase in costs equates to roughly 80 teachers.

A recent Mail Tribune opinion "Democrats face PERS debate" explains the reason behind the increases (a $16 billion deficit in the PERS fund) and Gov. John Kitzhaber's recommendations for modifications to rein in some costs. Health insurance is another huge cost driver. Coordinated Care Organizations promise to lower utilization of services by focusing on prevention; this could help lower costs at self-insured school districts such as Medford. Insurance Exchanges hold hope of more competitive pricing for small to medium school districts that buy insurance. We need to continue to support this kind of innovation to control health care costs.

As revenues improve, Oregon would be wise to build an adequate rainy-day fund to protect schools and other vital services during the next downturn. The kicker law has prevented any kind of meaningful accumulation of reserves by requiring revenues in excess of 2 percent above projections to be rebated to taxpayers. The current recession was preceded by $1 billion in kicker refunds to taxpayers, money that could have protected schools from the some of the horrendous cuts of the past four years.

The governor has released his budget recommendations for the next biennium. Will this budget push Oregon schools over the cliff, or will we start to reinvest? Will the legislature act on the governor's proposals to rein in PERS? As the economy improves, will we be able to build up a decent rainy-day fund to protect schools during future downturns?

Rogue Valley residents have a unique opportunity to affect the answers to these questions by attending the Education Town Hall at 7 tonight in the North Medford High School Commons, 1900 N. Keene Way, Medford. Rob Saxton, the deputy superintendent of public instruction, will explain what the governor's recommended budget means for K-12. Local superintendents and school board members will discuss the impact in their district, and legislators will share their ideas for cost containment/revenue enhancement and improving the stability of education funding. Participants will work in groups to develop questions for legislators, who will include State Reps. Peter Buckley, Dennis Richardson, Wally Hicks and Sal Esquivel and State Sen. Alan Bates.

Join the discussion and let your voice be heard. Early registration (6:45 p.m.) is encouraged.

Jeff Thomas is chairman of the Medford School Board.

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