Sunday, February 22, 2009

Oregon's Educational Trilemma

I've been in the dumps lately about the financial crisis in Oregon. We primarily fund public services through state income tax and property tax, both of which have been skyrocketing downward of late (sound familiar for those of you out of state?). We have no sales tax. This has put Oregon in a $880 million dollar deficit for the biennium budget that ends this year. In addition, we might be almost $3 billion in the hole for the next biennium. These numbers are creating apocalyptic visions for our future.

This river trickles down to a ~$8 million dollar deficit for my school district before our year ends on June 30th. This number may get reduced from some help from the state, but the Governor is threatening vetos for any allocations of the stimulus in the current biennium. With the deficit news, we immediately cut 20% from our district's operating budget, removed all teacher fridges and microwaves from the building, shut off lights, yada yada... But this is not enough. No budget cuts or green behaviors are going to fill in that big of a hole. So the state and our district have to do one of the following:
  1. Fire Teachers and Support Staff- Roughly 80% of our operating budget is bound-up in staff salaries and benefits. Yes, like many other businesses, humans are the most expensive asset. Pros: Schools stay open which means parents don't need to get daycare$ or worry about teens home alone. A reduction in staff would hopefully keep the most effective teachers (but seniority is usually the defining protective criteria). Finally, this is an effect way to reduce the deficit (remember the 80% number). Cons: Valuable people lose their jobs. The local economic situation worsens due to the loss of local family income. Services to students will be reduced and programs will be cut - non-core curriculum areas have been targets in the past (librarians, special ed, music, physical ed, and art).

  2. Cut School Days - Our district saves ~$300,000 for every cut day of school. I'm not sure about the math, but we're predicting at least 12 days or more cut between March 1st and June 6th. This translates to an extra long spring break and many 3 day weekends. Pros: Teachers still have jobs. We cut our losses now and prep for next year's debacle. Somewhat lower impact to local economy. Students are excited to have time off (I'm just telling the truth). The state gets a clear message that we're already lean, and they eed to find a more stable educational funding model. Cons: Teachers will lose pay for every day that is cut. Students will get time off but they'll have to do more homework, and it'll make it tougher for lagging Seniors to graduate. Parents will have increased day care costs/worries. Students will get less educational time, so less curriculum will be covered, which = less learning.

  3. Fill the Deficit with a Reallocation of State Funds - The state can decide to spend money on education instead of other state services. I heard from a legislative guy in the know, that $100 million dollars of help from the state would allow all school districts in the state to stay open. Pros: No interruption in school for students. Teacher's pay is unaffected. Parents don't have to worry about daycare costs. Local economies are unaffected, with the exception of other state services that are cut. Cons: We steal resources that should really be allocated to the financial tsunami coming next year. Other important social services will get reduced by $100 million (police? fire? roads? social services?). Impact of a poor education funding model is not felt. I'm worried that just getting a bye this year puts off hard conversations we have to have about teacher's salaries, school funding, tax-bases, etc.

How's that for a bleak picture!?! It should be noted that hard-working people in our local economy are getting slammed. Unemployment is rising quickly. Lithia auto dealerships are being closed down, Harry and David was -15% for the quarter, and many retailers have died or are near death. Southern Oregon was a big part of the mortgage bubble, and many homes are being foreclosed.

So I'm interested in your comments. Is public education an untouchable pillar of our society that should always receive priority funding? Conversely, should education share the same pain that many members of our society are already feeling?


daniel w. said...

As a friend of our state senator Jason Atkinson. A lot of personal discussions have revolved around state budgets. He has been and continues to push a change in how the state budget is distributed.

Currently that state distributes their budget among small organizations and policies (designed by democrats to gain popularity), and then whatever is left over is given to road maintenance, education etc...

Mr. Atkinson has been pushing a reconstruction of our state budget. In order to put major priorities first in line for the budget. This would insure that education, road construction... would receive the budget they need and the lesser needed (and smaller) programs, would be left out in the cold.

Since the Oregon government has a strong majority of democrats. This is very unlikely to pass.

Still the idea of distributing budget by importance instead of popularity is a change that many Oregonians are willing to try.

Evan said...

Regretfully I read your post on the tail of Nick O's semi-post-apocalyptic link:

So my expectations of everything have been lowered to subsistence level, though I still believe that education has priority over everything-our civilization depends on it. As far as the Trilemma goes, is it possible the cuts will end up getting spread across all three areas? It's hard to say how far standards of living will decline, which will dictate what will be acceptable in terms of (possibly radical) changes in primary education.
Of all three, firing teachers and support staff is the most abysmal choice. It's always been the wrong choice. A teacher to student ratio of 1:15 in which the curriculum is pared down to english, math, science, civics/geography and relevant arts/industrial skill development is far better than the alternative. Individualized attention rules. In terms of relevancy some upgrades of negligible cost are certainly in order. Public school art classes in their present form are ludicrous. The cost of maintaining ceramics kilns, chemical photo labs, buying papers, paint and cleaning supplies is certainly less than a lab of 20 computers with Dreamweaver and Photoshop, but the educational and economic value is zilch, whereas any knowledge of digital processes beyond facebooking is of enormous value. When was the last want ad posted for a potter? How many for Dreamweaver? English departments have been able to get beyond tedious romantic rhyming poetry and Victorian bullshit like "Ivanhoe" but the art departments are stuck in 500 b.c. Digital education is needed now and can't wait for a generation of crotchety art educators to retire.
Rant over.

Thanks for the forum. BTW, our college is getting hit with a huge cut- the solution, of course, is to increase enrollment.