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School funding bill vital to fire-damaged districts

It’s been more than a year since the Almeda fire left thousands homeless. The cleanup is mostly finished, and the rebuilding is well underway, but the Phoenix-Talent School District is still waiting to be made whole.

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The district didn’t lose buildings. It lost students. Because state school funding is based on enrollment, that means the district lost a significant amount of money.

In all, 700 Phoenix-Talent students lost their homes in the fire. Half of those left the district and never returned. That many students represents about $3 million in state school support.

Other districts suffered enrollment losses as well, including the Santiam Canyon School District, which lost 72 students — 12% of the student body, representing $600,000 in state funding in addition to grant money lost to lower enrollment numbers. The McKenzie School District is down about $300,000.

Lawmakers drafted a bill in the 2021 session to make up that lost money. House Bill 2630 would have allowed districts affected by wildfires to use enrollment numbers from the 2019-2020 school year for five years to keep their funding stable while their communities rebuild and displaced families with children move back. Districts were told the bill was a sure thing, and they should budget accordingly, so they did.

But HB 2630 never made it out of committee, because of an unspecified miscommunication among lawmakers.

What that means for the affected districts is that if the Legislature doesn’t fix the problem in the 2022 session, they will have to make up the dollars spent this year and cut their budgets by the same amount next year — a double whammy.

Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, says she is committed to pushing a new bill through in next year’s session and she’s making that her top priority.

The rest of the Legislature should make it theirs as well.