Leaders of Oregon’s largest school districts ask state to address ‘education funding crisis’

Superintendents in four Oregon school districts, including the two largest in Portland and Salem, are calling on state leaders to boost funding for public education, calling the state of school funding a “crisis.” 

In a video posted to district YouTube accounts on Monday, the leaders of Portland, Salem-Keizer, Bend-La Pine and Medford school districts made a plea to state leaders to update the formula for calculating per-student funding in Oregon, which relies heavily on the state’s general fund and which has remained largely unchanged since the early 1990s. More than 115,000 students attend school in the four districts, which serve about 20% of the state’s total student population. Each district is staring down budgets reduced by millions or tens of millions over the next two years. 

The superintendents – Sandy Husk of Portland, Andrea Castañeda of Salem-Keizer, Steve Cook of Bend-La Pine and Bret Champion of Medford – said the outlook is so dim that districts likely will have to lay off hundreds of teachers, which would mean even bigger class sizes at a time when many students are still catching up from the pandemic and when many more instructional and behavioral health specialists are needed. 

“This is a terrible and devastating, heartbreaking moment for us,” Castañeda of Salem-Keizer said in the video, “and it is not one we’re using to levy blame. It’s one that we’re using to ask for help.”

A record budget

During the long legislative session last summer, lawmakers passed a $10.2 billion school funding package, the largest state school fund budget ever allocated in Oregon. But district leaders have said they’ve endured years of underfunding and now face the rising cost of goods and services due to inflation and the deep needs of students following school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many have also spent the last of the federal relief money they received from the U.S. Department of Education, which has provided $1.6 billion to Oregon schools and the Oregon Department of Education since 2020.

That funding runs out in September, about one month into the 2024-25 school year.

In Bend-La Pine, district leaders and the school board are cutting 3% of the upcoming school year budget and potentially 7% next year, resulting in a total loss of up to 200 positions. In Salem-Keizer, district leaders are cutting $70 million from the upcoming school year budget, resulting in the loss of more than 400 positions. In Portland, the district needs to cut $30 million from its budget, and in Medford the district needs to cut $7.5 million.

“These cuts are agonizing and felt deeply by our students,” said Champion, the district’s superintendent, in the video. 

Gov. Tina Kotek did not comment on the video from the superintendents by Monday afternoon, and Oregon House and Senate education leaders – Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, and Rep. Courtney Neron, D-Wilsonville – also did not respond to emails and a phone call from the Capital Chronicle requesting comment. 

Historical shift

Portland district officials said the historic three-week teacher strike in Portland last fall over wages, planning time and class sizes was due, in part, on underfunding. In a press conference held during the strike in November, former Portland Public Schools’ Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero, told lawmakers a 9% increase in district funding did not make up for inflation that drove school costs up 18% in recent years. 

On Monday and Tuesday, a Portland-based public school advocacy group, Community & Parents for Public Schools, which is part of the nationwide Parents for Public Schools, is holding meetings at two Portland schools to discuss upcoming school budget cuts and to meet with area legislators to discuss funding issues and to lobby them to increase investment.

Following the teachers’ strike, Kotek said she would direct the Legislature to review and update the state school funding formula if it’s fallen out of alignment with the costs districts are facing. 

Up until the early 1990s, public education in Oregon was largely funded by local property taxes, but the passage of two voter-approved ballot measures – Measure 5 in 1991 and Measure 50 in 1997 – capped the state’s ability to tax property to fund schools. School funding from those taxes dropped by two-thirds in the following years, and the Legislature instead drew a greater share of funding from the state’s general fund. 

Legislators have historically not fully allocated to schools the amount of money that’s been recommended every biennium by the state’s Education Quality Commission, which is tasked with ensuring Oregon operates a “a system of highly-effective schools,” and which presents a budget to the governor and the Legislature to consider every two-years.

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Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post. She previously worked in Iceland and Qatar and was a Fulbright scholar in Spain where she earned a master's degree in digital media. She's been a kayaking guide in Alaska, farmed on four continents and worked the night shift at several bakeries to support her reporting along the way.