Unanimity is tough to achieve, but a public forum in Astoria on educational priorities Saturday highlighted six areas that those attending appeared to agree on.

The event, at the Port of Astoria offices, was led by state Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie.

Summing up, after two hours of testimony from six panelists and 25 attendees, Witt outlined the areas of agreement.

? retention of good personnel at all levels of education, K-college;

? up-to-date equipment for students and staff;

? more varied and reliable funding sources;

? a full curriculum of math, science, arts and sports;

? creation and retention of good jobs in the community, to help keep funding stable through income taxes;

? encouraging more parental involvement in education.

The points were a synthesis of two hours of discussion. Those taking part included school board members from various Clatsop districts, parents, school staff and North Coast residents.

Panelists included state Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, Astoria School Superintendent Craig Hoppes, Joe Esmonde, from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers' apprenticeship program; Jeanne Hyatt, office manager at Warrenton High School; and Lindi Overton, interim president of Clatsop Community College.

Johnson, who plays a key role in state budget making, warned of trouble looming. She said the state made $2 billion in cuts in its last budget. Even with new revenue sources, in part with the passage of January's ballot measures 66 and 67, Oregon will face money worries in the next two years, including a new $2 billion deficit when budget planners sit down to work next time around.

"We are not going to be able to cut our way out of it," she said, "we are not going to be able to raise revenue to get out of it."

Linda Dugan, leader of Warrenton-Hammond School Board, said part of the problem was mandates from federal and state governments. The federal No Child Left Behind regulations added even more. Johnson said she would like someone to prepare a checklist of mandates so lawmakers could better address the issue.

Overton outlined elements of the expanding mission of Clatsop Community College and described ways leaders had increased tuition but they were seeking to avoid more cuts. "We are reaching out everywhere we can, but we are being stretched," she said.

She described how the college plays a key role in offering lower-level classes for students going on to a four-year degree. But a key part of its mission is vocational, and adapting to changing community needs. She said the nursing program is enjoying considerable success, with 100 percent pass rate in the last two years. Displaced Weyerhaeuser workers and others have benefited from retraining classes.

Hoppes said Astoria School District is doing reasonably well, in part because it had already made many cuts, including closing Capt. Robert Gray Elementary School and using it for an alternative school. He highlighted the recent announcements about Seaside and Jewell districts cutting staff or warning of cuts to come and said Astoria had already gone through that agony, cutting 18 positions. Part of the pain was spared because administrators looked to retirements and attrition to minimize the personal costs of job losses.

Declining enrollment over prior years and the state funding shortfalls have caused belt-tightening over the past few years he said. The January ballot measures, 66 and 67, have helped with funding, but Astoria leaders have chosen not to add back programs that they may need to cut again. "It's not good for kids, it's not good for the community. It's frustrating," he said.

Astoria is looking at grants and a possible construction excise tax. "Any time we can get more revenue, we try to," he said.

Hoppes, who runs one of five separate school districts in Clatsop County, was asked by Sara Meyer, of Astoria, whether the idea of consolidating public school administrations to save money - floated many years ago - was being discussed now as a money-saving option. Hoppes said it was not.

The woes of classified school district staff - secretaries, janitors, bus drivers and teacher's aides - was put into perspective by Jeanne Hyatt, long-serving office manager of Warrenton High School, who is a leader in the Oregon School Employees Association.

She outlined the way in which school administrators' decisions to cut staff hours meant problems getting health insurance. She talked of how staff and teachers were frustrated, using refurbished computers that slowed office productivity and hindered classroom learning. "We cannot provide the technology that's needed because of budget cuts," she said.

Her experiences were echoed by an audience member, Missy Johnson, a paraprofessional at Astoria High School. She reminded those present that although teachers can opt to spread their paychecks over 12 months, classified staff members, who are invariably paid less, cannot. That means three months of unemployment during the summer - but no opportunity for unemployment pay.

"Our classified employees are hurting too," she said. "We are the backbone of the school."

The next town hall meeting organized by Witt will focus on jobs. However, the topic was at the forefront Saturday.

Cullen Bangs, recently elected to Knappa School Board, is a fifth-generation resident. He said the community needs to lure more family-wage jobs to offer graduates a reason to stay. "I would like to see more of our young people live here," he said.

Esmonde, from the electricians' union, highlighted the competition for apprenticeships, which he called "a working person's college degree." Many North Coast businesses relied on his graduates, he said, adding that there were 1,000 applicants for each position.

Summing up, Witt warned that despite signs of economic recovery, there are more tough times ahead, in part because Oregon is so dependent on income tax revenue for funding all services, including schools. Jobs will be a key, he said, anticipating his next forum May 1.

"We don't expect, at least in the near term, a robust recovery," he said. "It appears to be a slow, gradual buildup to economic vitality."

Saturday's event was the second of three town hall meetings hosted by Witt. The first covered health issues; the final one, on jobs and the economy, will be held May 1. Details will be announced later.


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