Dozens of local educators Tuesday pressed legislators to support reform to the Public Employee Retirement System, a state pension program that one school board member said is "killing" school districts.
Oregon Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Rob Saxton, and Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, and Sen. Alan Bates, D-Ashland, spoke on a panel in front of more than 100 guests Tuesday night at a "Stand For Children" education forum at North Medford High School.
"This has to be changed," said Phoenix-Talent School Board Chairman Craig Prewitt about the PERS system, which continues to eat up an increasingly large percentage of school district budgets each year. "It's not just the elephant in the room. It's a whole herd of elephants. It's killing us."
Medford School Board member Tricia Prendergast said that the increased cost of PERS for the Medford School District over the last biennium topped $6 million.
"We are reaching the breaking point," said Prendergast. "We are hopeful and tentatively enthusiastic about many of the reforms that have been put in place and are proposed."
Prendergast and Prewitt urged the legislators at the forum to support reform of PERS, and Richardson responded as a strong advocate for reform.
"It's an impossible situation that those of us involved in education are in," said Richardson, who has publicly advocated for PERS reform. "We need to have drastic reformation.
"We've seen it coming. We knew it was coming. And now it's here," he said.
Saxton and legislators heard from more than a dozen speakers including superintendents and teachers from districts across the region about the state education budget and allocation of funds for various programs.
A budget proposed Friday by Gov. John Kitzhaber includes cutting more than a third of the budget provided to regional education service districts and reallocating the money to an initiative to encourage and train the next generation of teachers.
"There is some concern about this with ESD superintendents," said Saxton.
Regionally, the Southern Oregon Education Service District provides the majority of special education services to a number of districts.
The state mandated special education services would still have to be provided to students by school district regardless of if funding is cut to ESDs, forum participants said.
Saxton said that he is pulling together a group of ESD superintendents and school district superintendents to strategize how ESDs would handle the cut.
Saxton also shared plans for more than $35 million he said was outside the rest of the state's education budget, and would be used for other new education programs, including an initiative to guarantee students can read by third grade.
Ashland schools Superintendent Juli Di Chiro said that while ideas for new education reform would be welcomed, she believes the state should focus on funding a full school year before taking on any new initiatives.
"We were hoping this would be the biennium where school funding would turn around," said Di Chiro. "But it's not."
Reach reporter Teresa Ristow at 541-776-4459 or firstname.lastname@example.org