Oni Marchbanks, center, speaks at a racial justice rally at the Oregon Capitol in 2020. Marchbanks' small nonprofit, Equity Splash, is among those struggling to meet state insurance requirements for 2022 summer learning programs (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Oni Marchbanks wants to see more Black kids studying science, technology, engineering and math classes in Salem.

Marchbanks, an activist and educator focused on equity and diversity, said she recently spoke to a young Black student in Salem whose teacher reacted with surprise to seeing them in a STEM-focused class.

“I’m surprised you’re in here - you usually don’t get into those classes,” the student remembered hearing.

Marchbanks is working to start up the Zenzele Learning Center, a space in Salem for Black students to learn about culture and art as well as STEM topics. She’d hoped to offer summer camps for Salem elementary and middle schoolers this summer under her new nonprofit, Equity Splash.

It’s the sort of program Oregon legislators had in mind when they set aside $50 million earlier this year to fund summer programs run by community organizations.

But hundreds of those programs likely won’t get off the ground this year because of state insurance requirements few small organizations are in a position to meet.

That’s especially likely to impact nonprofits serving students of color, students in rural areas and other grassroots groups trying to serve Oregon kids who might otherwise not find a summer program tailored to their needs.

“In our pre-screening, we’re finding very very few applicants who carry the requisite insurance,” Jessica Brenden, director of programs for the Oregon Association of Educational Service Districts, told legislators during a June 2 Senate and House Education Committee meeting. The association is screening applications and awarding grant funds later this month.

“It’s going to be a small amount. I don’t believe we’ll be able to distribute the full $50 million,” Brenden told the committee.

At issue is a state requirement that programs carry special insurance to cover claims of sexual abuse and molestation, on top of requirements for general liability, worker’s compensation and automobile liability policies.

Sexual abuse insurance is a standard policy carried by many organizations that work with children, including Oregon school districts, but it’s also something few small nonprofits carry. Many insurers don’t offer the coverage, and those who do typically require it for a full year, a costly requirement for programs only operating for a few weeks during the summer, Brenden said. That cost can be $20,000 to $25,000 per year.

Marchbanks said she’s reached out to her insurance provider to determine the cost of adding the extra coverage to her policy and is waiting to hear back, but she’s frustrated by what she described as the state putting additional burdens on small nonprofits which will disproportionately affect organizations serving people of color. She’s applying for the state money anyway in hopes she can figure out the coverage requirements.

“We cover most of it but they’re just asking for so much,” Marchbanks said of her existing insurance. She said it’s disappointing that “after all the screaming, the yelling, the crying, the pleading, the meetings, that you’re still not making decisions through an equity lens. You leave barriers in place with no regard for who doesn’t have access.”

This summer is the second that Oregon legislators have allocated tens of millions of dollars to summer programs run by community groups.

In 2021, the money was distributed by the Oregon Community Foundation and let many smaller organizations, like the Salem Islamic Center, offer summer programs for the first time.

The foundation required programs to self-attest they had insurance coverage, but didn’t specifically require coverage against sexual abuse claims or detail coverage requirements.

Colt Gill, director of the Oregon Department of Education, said the foundation was chosen to distribute money because Oregon was in a declared state of emergency related to the pandemic.

“The Legislature allocated critical emergency relief funding during the COVID-19 pandemic on an unprecedented scale. It relied on both state government agencies and non-public entities to support the rapid distribution of relief funds to the most vulnerable populations, including children and youth,” Gill said in an email. That wasn’t an option for this summer because the state of emergency is no longer in effect.

Brenden said her association told the education department in April that insurance was likely to be a barrier after receiving many questions about the coverage requirements from nonprofits seeking funding. The association, as well as the education department, worked to find a solution, exploring options including having educational service districts extend their insurance or seeking coverage through PACE, the state provider that covers most Oregon school districts.

“They couldn’t find a carrier who would insure all of the individual organizations,” she said. “We ran out of options. Every stone was turned.”

Gill acknowledged in a June 2 letter to the association that the lack of a solution was likely to affect smaller community organizations.

“The state has pursued but ultimately exhausted multiple avenues, to address risk and insurance challenges,” he wrote. “Because of the nature of specific types of claims that can arise from working with children, the risks associated with these claims are high which requires high levels of insurance coverage with liabilities that continue for decades after the program has been completed.”

Gill said the education department is allowing organizations to use a portion of their summer program grant money to buy coverage in hopes that will make some community organizations able to qualify. He said the department is working with state legislators and affected organizations to make legislative changes in 2023 that would make coverage for smaller organizations easier to obtain.

Some Salem nonprofits expect they’ll still be able to offer summer programs with the state money. The Salem-Keizer Coalition for Equality, a Latino parent organization that’s offered literacy programs for more than 20 years, was able to secure the needed coverage, said Executive Director Annalivia Palazzo-Angulo.

Last summer, they offered an eight-week program where parents and kids learned together and took field trips to the coast, Oregon Gardens and other destinations around the region. This summer, they’ll have a similar offering.

Palazzo-Angulo said it’s taken years for the coalition to build up their capacity so they can offer programs like that and meet insurance requirements.

Brenden said she expects many of the 331 organizations who have applied won’t be able to clear the bar. Most of those who applied have programs intended to serve students of color, students with disabilities, students in rural areas, or students who are homeless or in foster care.

“That’s what is actually the hardest for me to talk about, because it’s just so clear who will benefit and who won’t benefit,” Brenden said.

Marchbanks said she intends to offer her Equity Splash summer program and learning center for kids whether she receives state money or not, though it may need to be scaled back.

“We’re not going anywhere. I’m gonna be here and I’ll find a grant,” she said. “We’re gonna do it, we’re just gonna have to do it in a smaller way.”

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

JUST THE FACTS, FOR SALEM - We report on your community with care and depth, fairness and accuracy. Get local news that matters to you. Subscribe to Salem Reporter starting at $5 a month. Click I want to subscribe!