29 May 2013 by Published in: Opinion No comments yet

How to Solve the School Funding Problem

Editorial Comments

by Deborah Steele Hazen

Our congratulations to the group of teachers at Clatskanie Elementary School (CES) who took the initiative to conceive, organize and conduct, with the help of other staff members and the support of the community, the first annual CES Art Auction May 18, which raised over $12,000.

The teachers are reportedly dedicating that money towards a “mobile mini computer lab” for students to use in the increasingly-technology-oriented learning and testing environment of our schools

Last week’s Chief mistakenly reported that the event was sponsored by the Parents Supporting Education Association (PSEA), whose volunteers have headed up numerous programs and projects for the school. A formal correction is printed elsewhere in this edition.

While we are delighted to welcome the CES teachers into the ranks of Clatskanie’s volunteers, the on-going funding shortfalls of the school district simply can’t be addressed by volunteerism alone.

The same group of teachers who headed up the CES auction were in attendance at the May 22nd school budget committee meeting where they argued passionately in favor of keeping the Title I reading specialist position full-time, rather than half-time to allow for a half-time school counselor (see story at right).

We applaud them for standing up for what they believe is in the best interest of their students.

However, had it been three years from now, all other factors remaining the same and all going as expected with Portland General Electric’s (PGE) Port Westward Unit 2 plant which broke ground two weeks ago, it wouldn’t have been an issue, because the school district would be receiving SIP (Strategic Investment Program) payments  from PGE through the Clatskanie Foundation of approximately $450,000 in the first year (2016-17), and continuing over the next 15 years, declining gradually to about $320,000 in the final year.

If it were three years from now, because of the state’s SIP program which has industry making payments directly to local taxing districts, the school budget committee wouldn’t have had to choose between a counselor and a full-time Title I teacher, nor would it have been necessary to layoff a high school PE/health teacher.

Thank You to Economic Leaders

We can thank the leadership of Port of St. Helens board president Robert Keyser, Columbia County Commissioner Tony Hyde and other local government administrators and elected officials for making sure that the school district got a share – and the biggest share – of the SIP payments the new PGE plant will make.

Normally, because of the rules of the state school funding formula, school districts aren’t recipients of SIP payments. But our county’s economic leaders figured out a way by using the Clatskanie Foundation.

The county and the nine taxing districts – the Port of St. Helens, Clatskanie Rural Fire Protection District, 9-1-1, library, park and recreation, 4-H and extension, soil and water district, vector control, Rainier Cemetery District -  that were originally scheduled to receive a share of those payments, based on their tax rates, all unselfishly agreed to include the Clatskanie School District and the Northwest Education Service District in the SIP payment schedule, thereby getting less themselves.

The school district and ESD funds will be paid to the Clatskanie Foundation and then granted to those districts, so as not to impact the state school funding formula.

It was a brilliant idea, and the fact that the cash-strapped county and the nine other small taxing districts agreed to give up a portion of their payments to benefit the local schools deserves notice, recognition and gratitude.

Of course, as much of a boon to the school district as these SIP payments are going to be for 15 years after the new PGE plant goes on line in 2015, eventually inflation, the rising costs of salaries, insurance and PERS (Public Employee Retirement System) are going to eat up those SIP payments.

The continuing decreasing student enrollments that the Clatskanie and Rainier school districts have been experiencing for years now negatively impact the amount of state school funding they get, because it is based on student enrollment.

At last week’s Clatskanie school budget meeting, interim superintendent George Lanning noted that Clatskanie’s “weighted” enrollment figures had dropped from 973.95 in 2010-11, to 932.43 in 2011-12, to 884.53 in 2012-13. “Weighted” refers to a formula under which the actual enrollment is increased – and thus the state school funding – because of such factors as the numbers of students qualifying for special education, reduced or free lunches, pregnancy, etc.

More Industry, More Jobs, More Money, More Students

Wouldn’t it be nice if our actual student enrollment figures rebounded because their parents could find good paying jobs in this area?

As Keyser explained to the Clatskanie school board at its meeting in February, once the enterprise zone property tax exemptions expire in the next couple of years and the urban renewal debt is paid off – and the more industries that locate at Port Westward the faster it will be paid off – the very real potential exists for the valuation at Port Westward to rise to the point that the Clatskanie School District could opt out of state school funding and have more stable and generous funding than it does now.

More industry at Port Westward means not only increased tax valuation – and we’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars – it also means more family wage paying jobs, more people staying in the community they grew up in, new families moving to town, more volunteers for our community projects and events, a revitalized small business community.

The way to stabilize school funding – indeed, funding for all our local governments – is to bring high valuation industry and jobs to our area.

Those interested in keeping teachers in our classrooms and programs for our students should be standing up at the public hearings regarding industrial development and saying loudly “YES” to family-wage-job-creating industries that meet the strict state and federal environmental protections already in place.

That’s how we solve Clatskanie’s school funding problem.

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