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Phoenix-Talent schools push for state funding bill to pass

Phoenix-Talent Schools1.jpg
Phoenix-Talent is asking the state for more money to make up for how many students it lost during the fire

A member of the Rogue Valley delegation to the Legislature has promised that a bill which would have provided a funding boost to Phoenix-Talent School District, ravaged by the Almeda fire last year, will be revived in 2022.

House Bill 2630 had bipartisan support but did not make it to a vote on the Ways and Means Committee due to miscommunication among lawmakers, Democratic Rep. Pam Marsh told the Medford Mail Tribune.

“We're going to fix this,” she said, noting that a bill is being prepared right now. “It’s my highest priority. I’m going to do everything I can to get that bill through this time.”

HB2630 would have directed the state’s Department of Education to cover any loss of State School Fund distributions that districts might have had as a result of wildfires last year.

Because of the Almeda fire, the Phoenix-Talent School District saw approximately 700 students displaced -- 350 of which have yet to return to the district, officials say. Given that factor and Oregon’s complicated funding formula for schools -- in which districts are funded based on the number of students enrolled and attending -- it’s a recipe that could mean Phoenix-Talent schools stand to lose millions of dollars.

In a recent interview with the Mail Tribune, Phoenix-Talent Superintendent Brent Barry would love for lawmakers to come through in 2022 and pass a funding bill.

“My plea is the hope that the Legislature realizes the need,” Barry said. “We’re already just trying to put one foot in front of another and without this security, it could be devastating.”

Dawn Watson, chairwoman of the district’s school board, said that for now, the school district’s budget is not affected by the bill’s failure, but “if something happens and they [lawmakers] don’t follow through with their promise, then we will have to take significant cuts.”

Such cuts would mean “impact to programs and people and ultimately, students,” Barry said.

Marsh can still picture the moment the Almeda fire struck and talked about what it must have meant to youth.

“Every child in the Phoenix-Talent School District -- if that child was at home -- fled their home looking up at a giant plume of smoke, if not actual frames, coming toward their neighborhood,” Marsh said. “Now, not every child lost their home, but every child has carried with them the memory and trauma of what that day was like.”

She commended Barry’s leadership, noting that the district as a whole is “trying to hold all of these children and families in their arms to nurture them.”

“[And also] to put the right kinds of programs on the ground to help children and families respond to and heal from the trauma they’ve experienced -- and do the regular academic stuff at the same time,” Marsh said. “That’s why we need to give them the support they need.”

Marsh noted that the importance of getting this bill passed goes not just to being able to educate students. It will provide economic development as well.

“For many people to know there’s a strong, vibrant, robust school district is a really important factor in where they decide to locate themselves,” Marsh said. “So this community needs a school district to be in great shape and functioning well as they go through this rebuilding process.”

Watson said that process could take up to five years, which is why the district asked the Legislature for the bill to include a sunset provision of 2025.

“We asked [the Legislature] for a five-year forgiveness … based on what we were told it would take for families to move back into our community,” she said.