With a big budget boost from the state for 2007-09, Oregon public schools will see an average 14 percent jump in funding - but local school administrators aren't celebrating yet.
On the North Coast, it's unclear whether the two-year injection of extra cash will provide long-term stability, or whether it will drive student achievement.
School districts are still feeling the sting from cuts made several years ago, when a struggling state economy forced many districts to ax programs, staff positions and school days. They're trying to restore positions slashed in the past, and trying to ensure some security for the future.
The Astoria School Board will make a final decision on the district's 2007-08 budget at 7 p.m. today. Some of the extra money will help establish reserves, said Superintendent Mike Sowder, "in case the economy doesn't hold up like they're saying it will for the second half of the biennium. We need to make sure and have plenty of dollars to fund the same programs the next year."
In addition, it will supply an extra elementary school teacher, another high school science teacher, a half-time special education instructor and a part-time teacher for talented and gifted students, as well as bumped-up school improvement programs. The district also plans to fund some building maintenance and to establish a five-year upkeep plan for facilities, and to add a computer lab at the middle school. Astoria has resumed funding high school golf - cut from the budget two years ago as schools tightened their belts. However, the district still must keep up with inflated costs for fuel, utilities and teachers' benefits, Sowder said.
Meanwhile, the Knappa School District has shifted its program mix, a result of the improved state funding picture and cutting back vocational agriculture classes. Next year, students can take Spanish conversation, consumer math and graphic design, among other new classes. Some were added with new state graduation requirements in mind, said Superintendent Rick Pass, noting smaller schools face an especially complex battle with enrollment declining across Clatsop County as government requirements increase.
Like Astoria, Warrenton, too, has added back funding for sports. Schools will again pick up the $56,000 to $60,000 tab for junior high and junior varsity sports, funded the past few years by nonprofit Warrenton Kids Inc.
Warrenton-Hammond Superintendent Craig Brewington said the district is still picking up the pieces from cuts made in the past.
"When we abolished JV and junior high sports programs in order to maintain school days, it was with the understanding it would only be until the school got back on its feet, and as soon as we could pick up those costs we would do that," he said. "We're not going to break our word."
But the budget boost will also allow the district to add a new full-time teacher, splitting a combined third- and fourth-grade class. And a half-time teacher will be added to shrink class sizes in junior high as a big enrollment bubble ascends grade levels. Middle-school classes will be kept to about 20 students in the mornings, Brewington said, and the district has for years tried to limit kindergarten, first and second grades to 20 children.
"This budget cycle, the priority was on personnel," he said. "On the horizon, we know what we need to restore," such as guidance counselors at the grade school and more PE and music classes, "and we'll do the best we can."
Seaside schools don't rely on the state general fund, thanks to high local support from property taxes, timber revenues and a local option levy. However, that money has increased as well, allowing the district to increase teaching staff for music, special education and English language learners.
In Jewell, where timber revenues also outweigh what the state would provide, the district is updating textbooks and hiring a half-time music teacher, a half-time counselor and a night-shift custodian to cover a new school building's additional floor space.
All of the local districts' improvements are in line with the range of changes being implemented across the state. But the education advocacy group Chalkboard Project contends the upgrades come with little accountability from schools.
Sue Hildick, president of the independent group, said districts should leverage the extra state money for the greatest return. Although $260 million of the $6.245 billion in state school aid for 2007-09 will target "school improvement," granting money for general categories such as class size reduction and professional development, she said, "Only some of these interventions will drive achievement in the long run."
The Chalkboard lobbying group tried to convince legislators to narrow the targets - to lower class sizes to 15 students in kindergarten and first grade, where research has shown the extra attention really helps, and to provide extra tutoring for grades K through 3, she said.
"It's a missed opportunity for Oregon," said Hildick. "In the end, politics trumped research."