Salem-Keizer will shift staff to transportation, special education under proposed $1.19 billion budget

Salem-Keizer Superintendent Christy Perry presents her 2019-20 budget plan to the district’s budget committee on April 23, 2019 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

The Salem-Keizer school district won’t see layoffs, a shorter school year or larger average class sizes next year, Superintendent Christy Perry told the district’s budget committee Tuesday night.

But with rising staff costs and pension liabilities, the district will struggle to maintain its current services with a $1.19 billion proposed budget, a 4% increase over this year.

“All schools and departments across the district could use additional resources,” Perry said. “We know there are many more investments we could make on behalf of our students.”

Some $435 million of that total is related to capital projects, mostly a slate of school construction approved by voters last spring. By law, those funds can’t be used for operational costs.

Oregon’s second-largest school district isn’t planning for cuts or facing a budget shortfall, a departure from more austere budget plans announced in Portland and Beaverton this week.

Perry said long-term planning for growing pension obligations and other rising costs has “allowed us to be in a better fiscal position that many other districts in the state.”

Under her proposal, the district would add staff to middle schools and special education programs to account for growing enrollment in those areas, offsetting those increases with a lower contingency fund and cutting the district’s pool of reserve teachers.

Perry’s proposal would add 15 full-time jobs in the district’s transportation office, mostly bus drivers, to accommodate the impact of district attendance boundary adjustments approved earlier this year.

The budget would also add nine full-time teachers, counselors and other licensed staff for special education services, as well as more aides, and convert some temporary special education aide positions to permanent jobs.

“Permanent employees committed to our students with disabilities is imperative to their success,” Perry said.

Salem-Keizer enrollment is projected to remain flat across the district, a new trend for a district that has been growing for years.

“It’s essential that we do not overestimate our enrollment,” Perry said.

Funding estimates are based on Gov. Kate Brown’s proposed budget of nearly $9 billion for Oregon K-12 education over the next biennium, about $100 million more than the legislature’s initial proposal.

Though that funding would represent an increase over the current biennium, staffing costs and pension obligations are generally rising faster across Oregon districts.

Salem-Keizer isn’t among them, in part because the high number of English-learning students and students in poverty gives the district additional state funding. Perry said Brown’s proposed budget would let the district keep current service “with very little flexibility.”

The district’s pension costs will rise $14 million next year, and health care, wages and other labor costs are also rising.

If state funding is at the lower level proposed by the legislature, Perry said Salem-Keizer would have about $3.5 million less in funds next year.

“I have developed a plan for reductions if it comes to that,” she said.

The district’s budget committee is a 14-member group made up of seven community volunteers and the full school board.

The committee will meet next week to ask questions about the budget and hold several more meetings through mid-May to ask questions before recommending the budget to the school board for adoption.

Reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.