Gov. John Kitzhaber's proposal to create regional centers to strengthen and retain teachers across Oregon would mean drastic changes for education service districts, which would lose funding to create the centers.
Kitzhaber's proposal, a recommendation from his Education Funding Team, would take $120 million from ESDs over the next biennium, or about $60 million each of the next two years.
The cut "would significantly impact our special education services as well as technology support and other service areas," said Scott Perry, superintendent for the Southern Oregon Education Service District in Medford.
Perry said the cut would cost the SOESD about 28 percent of its budget, which primarily is used to offer special education services to local school districts, something districts with a small number of special education students would struggle to provide on their own.
"I hope he (Kitzhaber) can rethink his proposal," said Phoenix-Talent School Board Chairman Craig Prewitt. "This is not good for our district."
Prewitt said that Phoenix-Talent relies heavily on the SOESD for programs such as special education and technology, receiving services valued at more than $500,000 each year.
Should the SOESD no longer be able to provide the same level of services to Phoenix-Talent, the district could be forced to offer its own programs, at a much higher cost.
The same would be true for many of the 13 districts in Jackson, Josephine and Klamath counties serviced by the SOESD.
Kitzhaber's proposed $6.15 billion educational budget for the 2013-15 biennium includes the creation of at least four student achievement centers — regional hubs across the state that would offer educator support and professional development, according to the state Education Funding Team's October proposal to Kitzhaber.
One goal of the student achievement centers would be to increase the number of educators who are non-white, Hispanic or whose native language is not English by 2015. Another goal is to increase the retention rate of teachers in Title 1 schools.
To fund the centers, the team recommended that Kitzhaber reallocate some or all of the 4.5 percent of the education budget that goes to ESDs.
Prewitt believes that the ESDs are being targeted with cuts because of some low-performing ESDs outside of Southern Oregon.
After funding scandals involving Willamette and Baker ESDs surfaced in 2010, the Oregon Legislature proposed restructuring the ESDs so schools could opt out of their services.
While many districts said they would jump at that chance, district superintendents in Southern Oregon remained strong supporters of the SOESD, crafting a letter to legislators asking that the SOESD stay the same.
Districts in four ESDs outside Southern Oregon were ultimately allowed to withdraw from their ESDs and take 90 percent of their share of funding that the ESDs had received.
"Most ESDs in the state are functional and effective," said Prewitt. "But unfortunately there's been a target on the ESDs' back since then. The Southern Oregon ESD is being penalized when they didn't do anything wrong."
Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Rob Saxton admitted at a Dec. 4 education town hall in Medford that the proposal to take money from ESDs has drawn concern from some districts.
Saxton said he had composed a team of school district and ESD superintendents across the state to study how the funding cut and the ESD reconstruction might look.
The team includes Perry and Phoenix-Talent Superintendent Ben Bergreen, who were both in Salem last week to study the reconstruction.
Reach reporter Teresa Ristow at 541-776-4459 or firstname.lastname@example.org.