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Historically Underfunded 

In a state strapped for school funds, the Student Success Act is expected to lower class sizes and add supports for struggling kids in Bend-La Pine Schools

Starting in 2020, kids at Bend-La Pine Schools will benefit from historic investment in education from the state.

Last spring, Democrats in the Oregon Legislature seized an opportunity. With a Democratic supermajority in both the House and Senate, they passed the Student Success Act, signed into law by Gov. Kate Brown May 20. SSA will provide an additional $1 billion a year to address statewide education issues including student mental health, swelling class sizes, early childhood education and barriers to on-time graduation. Fifty percent of the money will go to K-12 districts, 20% to early learning and 30% to state-wide initiatives such as the High School Success fund.

Faculty, staff and students from Bend-La Pine Schools demonstrated in support of the Student Success Act in May—just before the Oregon Legislature passed the historic funding bill. Now, the district is planning how it will spend its share. - BRON WICKUM
  • Bron Wickum
  • Faculty, staff and students from Bend-La Pine Schools demonstrated in support of the Student Success Act in May—just before the Oregon Legislature passed the historic funding bill. Now, the district is planning how it will spend its share.

SSA will be paid for by Oregon businesses through a .5% tax on any sales over $1 million. Only 10% of companies in Oregon will be affected, and those businesses can deduct 35% of either their labor or production costs from what they owe.

"I've worked in education in Oregon for 34 years and we've never had this kind of influx of money," said Lora Nordquist, assistant superintendent of Bend-La Pine Schools. "In fact, most of my career has been about trying to figure out how to deal with cuts."

Money for Bend-La Pine Schools

Over the last two decades, one of BLPS' greatest challenges has been population growth. In 2000 it served 13,022 students. By September, that number had reached 18,711. A $268 million bond measure passed in 2017 has helped fund repairs and construction of new schools—but recent events illuminate challenges beyond overcrowding. The father of Deshaun Adderley is currently suing the district, claiming that the administration at Summit High School did little to help his African-American son who was being bullied. Deshaun killed himself in December 2017.

The results of the Excellence & Equity Review, published by BLPS in December, suggest this may be part of an ongoing pattern. The report revealed that some Spanish-speaking families felt unwelcome at local public schools, and many families expressed disappointment at the administration's unwillingness to address racism and bullying.

Bend isn't the only town dealing with these issues. In a report written by state legislators released in January 2019, student social, emotional and mental health was consistently ranked as a top concern in Oregon's 197 districts.

Funds from SSA target this issue by requiring all schools receiving the new state funds to have a plan of action to help students in the coming years. This could include hiring new counselors, establishing peer support groups and formalizing bullying policies.

BLPS should expect $14 million or more in additional funds from the state for next year's budget. Its current budget is $191.4 million for the 2019-2020 school year. The district will focus the new funds on mental health initiatives and reducing class size, according to Nordquist.

Shay Mikalson, the current superintendent at BLPS, will resign his position at the end of the 2020 school year and take on a new role as Chief Student Success Officer, where he will help lead the district's implementation, evaluation and development of SSA.

Proponents of SSA believe one of the keys to its success lays in the way it addresses groups of students who have traditionally been at a disadvantage. Dae Beak, senior economist with the Oregon Legislative Revenue Office, explained that the amount of money each district will receive from SSA is based on the number of enrolled students. But kids who have special needs, are experiencing poverty, are minority students or who are learning English—among many other categories—will count as 1.5 students for funding purposes.

"This is a highly charged piece of legislation; there were lots of people against it," said Nordquist. "The lens is on us in K-12 education to show that—with significant additional funding—we can move the dial in improving outcomes for our historically underserved students. I feel a real sense of urgency about that; we need to be really thoughtful about our budgeting plan so we're investing in high-level strategies that make a difference for students and their families and the staff."

Assistant Superintendent Lora Nordquist says Bend-La Pine Schools has a strong set of proposals the district is sending to the state to qualify for Student Success Act funding. - LAUREL BRAUNS
  • Laurel Brauns
  • Assistant Superintendent Lora Nordquist says Bend-La Pine Schools has a strong set of proposals the district is sending to the state to qualify for Student Success Act funding.

History Lesson

As of 2017, Oregon ranked second-worst in the nation for graduation rates, according to the U.S. Department of Education, and 30th overall for spending per pupil, at $11,264, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Oregon legislators who fought hard for SSA—such as House Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner (D-Portland)—believe the decline in Oregon education began in 1990, with the passage of Measure 5. It was one of the most contentious measures in Oregon history, passing with 52% of the vote. The law capped local property taxes for education at $5 per $1,000 of assessed property value, shrinking the budgets of many school districts. It made it the state's responsibility to make up for the deficit, but with no designated funding source. A sales tax was later brought to voters to help fund education, and failed.

Ever since, education has taken up the largest part of the state's budget, oftentimes at the expense of other valuable legislation, according to Smith Warner.

What resulted from Measure 5 was a system that helped to equalize funding among districts. But it also underfunded Oregon schools because of the caps on local property taxes and the volatility state of payroll taxes. Smith Warner says that the SSA will help to make up for the deficits of the last 30 years, but it won't happen overnight.

How it Works

Community input was key to writing this law at both the state and local levels. The Joint Committee on Student Success—which included Sen. Tim Knopp (R-Bend) and Rep. Cheri Helt (R-Bend)—traveled 3,000 miles around the state talking to communities about their education needs. The group created a report and plan to steer SSA. As a result, the bill requires comprehensive accountability from districts, paired with flexibility to allow for regional solutions.

"Different districts have different needs. In some, increases in mental health services would really help kids to graduate, others it is CTE (Career and Technical Education)," said Smith Warner, who served as co-chair of JCSS. "For other districts, it is transportation. In eastern Oregon, some kids are on the bus for two hours each way to get to school."

Helt and Knopp both voted against the bill. Helt told the Source she worked hard to make sure that Education Service Districts (like High Desert ESD in Central Oregon) were included in the SSA. Helt said ESDs are essential in rural areas so that high-needs students (like those on the autism spectrum) are taught by qualified teachers who specialize in certain disabilities and behavioral challenges. Some schools in metropolitan areas have their own specialists within the school district, Helt said.

"I was also super concerned that we get as much money into classrooms as we can, because that is where we are going to get the most ROI (return on investment)," Helt said. "Growing the Oregon Department of Education isn't going to increase graduation rates. I advocated for programs for students, more CTE and tutoring."

The ODE is hiring 72 additional employees to help manage SSA, including grant managers and research analysts, according to Marc Siegel, communications director for ODE. The state has spent $4 million on the Oregon Department of Revenue to collect the new business tax, and gave $460,000 to the state Justice Department to work on legal issues around the tax, according to the Salem Reporter.

Helt said she didn't vote for the bill because of the way the new tax will be collected and because it did not fund higher education in Oregon.

"My opposition to the bill was not opposition to supporting education," said Helt, who served on the Bend-La Pine School Board for eight years. She explained that she does not believe the tax is fair to businesses because it collects on total sales over $1 million, as opposed to profits. "Low-margin businesses will be affected," she said. Helt and her husband, Steve, own Zydeco Kitchen and Bistro 28, both restaurants in Bend.

The Student Success Act will provide an estimated additional $1 billion a year to support education throughout Oregon. Fifty percent will go to K-12 districts through the Student Investment Account, 20% will go toward early childhood care and learning and 30% will support statewide initiatives like the High School Success fund. - DARRIS HURST
  • Darris Hurst
  • The Student Success Act will provide an estimated additional $1 billion a year to support education throughout Oregon. Fifty percent will go to K-12 districts through the Student Investment Account, 20% will go toward early childhood care and learning and 30% will support statewide initiatives like the High School Success fund.

Qualifying for funds

As part of the process of qualifying for SSA funds, school districts must submit an application by April. The grants are non-competitive, but districts were required to conduct surveys and needs assessments in their communities to inform their ideas about how to use the additional money. In BLPS, survey facilitators sat down with 36 family and student groups this fall, and school principals led conversations with staff at the district's 33 schools. The process was rolled out in the Excellence & Equity Review, published last month.

Two solutions emerged.

"The first was reducing class size, so teachers have more opportunities to develop strong relationships, provide effective feedback and support a range of learners," the report reads. "The second involved providing more support for struggling students, whether in terms of social and emotional well-being or academics. Suggestions ranged from counselors to behavior specialists, from trained educational assistants to mental health professionals."

BLPS counselor-to-student ratios of 1:400 are above the national average of 1:482, according to the American School Counselor Association. But there is a growing interest in mental health in the local community. Last May, 100 students, parents and staff met at Sky View Middle School to discuss the issue. Sean Reinhart, executive director of special programs at BLPS, told the audience that the district is working to streamline mental health programing and training among different schools. The goal is to create a better system to find out about the needs of students and respond with different levels of programming, he said in an article published by the Oregon School Boards Association.

The overall goal this month is to organize plans for both mental health and smaller class sizes into a proposal the school board can approve and then submit to the state by the April deadline.

Early Childhood Care and Education

Younger children in Central Oregon will also benefit from SSA, with $200 million available statewide next year to help kids with early barriers to learning such as neglect, trauma, hunger and homelessness.

Early Learning Hub Director Brenda Comini is corralling the effort in Jefferson, Crook and Deschutes counties to help agencies and nonprofits prepare their applications. The state will fund special education, pre-school expansions, Head Start, home visits, professional development for early childhood education, parent education and culturally specific programing, she said.

According to a 2019 survey by the Oregon Health Authority, over one-fifth of children in Deschutes County on the Oregon Health Plan under the age of six are dealing with three or more complex traumas. Fifteen percent have experienced a parent in jail, 18% have a parent who struggles with addiction and 10% of children have a mental health disorder themselves. Some of the children may also be learning English for the first time as they enter school.

Comini said one of the biggest concerns she saw during meetings with parents and providers in the community last year is that many working families are above poverty level—thus they don't qualify for public assistance—but they still don't have enough money to pay for childcare. Even if they were able to pay, not much is available.

One way the SSA funds could help improve the region's childcare "desert" is through public/private partnerships in daycare centers where half the families pay full price, while the state assists the other families, Comini noted as an example. Providers are also considering ways to expand their bilingual offerings to address the dearth of Spanish-language programs for young kids in Bend.

Oregon businesses will begin paying the new tax in January, depending on their projected revenues, and the Early Learning Hub and K-12 schools can expect changes as early as this fall.

Over in Portland, Smith Warner is cautiously optimistic, noting that this funding influx was what the Oregon Department of Education recommended to bring the state up to national averages—so while it's a huge win for education, it's still fiscally conservative compared to other states.

"It's been almost 30 years since Measure 5 and we've been on a slow, steady decline," Smith Warner said. "It's not going to turn around in a year—this is not the flavor-of-the-month approach to how we are going to fix education. This isn't like an experiment where you can see the results in six months.... For early childhood education, it might take five years."

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