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COSA Blogs

Keep up to date with the latest news and trends facing public education in Oregon.

COSA offers three blogs that provide analysis, expert opinion, and commentary from COSA's expert team of professional staff:

  • Leader's Message: COSA's Leader's Message blog takes on the major issues facing school administrators throughout the state.
  • Bennett's Capitol Review: Chuck Bennett provides detail and analysis of everything going on in Salem -- expertise that's not available anywhere but in his blog.
  • Hot Topics: Members comment on the hottest topics in Oregon education.
Take a look at the latest discussions on COSA's blogs:

Bennett's Blog: 'Sine Die' to the 2013 legislative session
Leader's Blog
Monday, July 08, 2013

chuck-bennett.jpgby Chuck Bennett, Director of Government Relations

Within a couple of hours the legislative session will have ended – it’s called sine die, a bow to when we all took Latin in junior and senior high, I guess.

The final gavels will close the book on a legislature that made real strides in education funding and policy. After years of disinvestment in K-12 education, legislators grabbed the opportunity this year to add $400 million to the governor’s $6.15 State School Fund (SSF) allocation. That put the final figure for the SSF at $6.55 billion. Legislators also added a bill with PERS savings for education totaling about $200 million. That gives a total of $6.75 billion in cash and savings for K-12 education.

Throughout the session there were what proved to be unrealized hopes that legislators would add another $100 million in new revenue and enough additional PERS law changes to wipe out this year’s PERS rate increases. That would have brought the total amount of cash and savings to somewhere just in excess of $7 billion. Rumors of what became known as the “grand bargain” had the needed bipartisan majority ready to vote for it right up until they did in the Senate and the proposal failed by one vote. Even with that, there were rumors until Saturday night and Sunday morning that a deal on revenue and PERS had been struck. It wasn’t until Sunday there was a clear understanding the issue was dead.

Legislators also kept the so-called “carve outs” to a minimum by rejecting the governor’s request for over a $100 million in new programs off the top of the SSF and bringing it down to around $40 million. The new programs will include a substantial “educator effectiveness network,” and a series of “strategic investments” aimed at increasing student achievement. Initially the programs were to be administered by the Oregon Education Investment Board but the lawmakers decided instead to send the money and program responsibility generally to the Oregon Department of Education.

Legislators also took time to take on a number of policy issues including changes to the state’s open enrollment system, special education practices, inter-district transfer policies and a number of human resource related issues.

On Saturday legislators put an end to a union-sponsored attempt to further restrict the ability of school districts and other government entities to contract out services by allowing a greatly extended process that was subject to court review. The bill, SB 805, died in committee after being revived a couple of times during the session.

Small schools received a two-year extension of the high school grant program and for the foreign exchange student dormitory program used in several small districts.

A longstanding housing developer-driven dispute over boundaries between Hillsboro and Beaverton school districts will now require the services of a mediator to try to resolve what the legislature was unable to do – make the developer happy.

There will be a fairly small allocation of funds, not from the SSF, to fund some additional teachers in some “priority schools,” and Portland Public Schools will get some funds to assist with the costs for a group of high-cost, medically fragile students at the Providence Hospital.

In inter-district transfer law, it was clarified that districts cannot select students from specific neighborhoods or districts or deny students access because they are on an IEP. For open enrollment districts, they are no longer allowed to use their school grant funds to advertise or to send buses into districts to pick transport just open enrollment students.

Funds from tree harvests on the Elliott State Forest will now contribute part of the proceeds to a $400,000 fund to study the Marbled Murrelet, whose presence in the forest has greatly reduced harvest levels that contribute to the Common School Fund.

The legislature also established an interim task force to take a close look at the school funding formula and determine if it needs updating. We can expect a full review of the weights, transportation funding and small school grants as well as any new weights that might be added. COSA will be relying heavily on the OASE Funding Coalition to assist in developing positions on this in advance of the next session.

Under HB 3401 for the 2014-15 school year, school districts in three ESDs may request up to 65% of the formula distribution for ESDs attributable to the requesting district or up to 75% if the school district is able to provide evidence that the additional amount will be spent on services purchased from other ESDs; for the 2015-16 school year the amounts are increased to 75% and 85%; and starting in the 2016-17 school year, there are no limits. The amendment also establishes a workgroup to explore options for the optimal regional education delivery system and report back to interim education committees by November 20, 2013.
As you might expect, there are a substantial number of other bills that were passed or considered during the six month legislative session. COSA and OSBA will again prepare a detailed review of the bills and issues that were included and this will be sent to all school districts.

Generally, this was a good session for K-12. Schools and kids can always use more support, state funding for capital construction is not there yet and convincing lawmakers that education policy is best handled at the local level is an idea supported but with regular exceptions. What did work again was the creation of a strong education coalition that held together despite strong disagreements over labor and retirement policies. At this point I would predict we have not seen the last of the PERS and revenue debate. The issue is very likely to come up in the February session and could even prompt a special session in the fall if proponents can find a way to put together the necessary votes. We’ll keep you informed on this one.

Lots of potential as the session winds to a close
Leader's Blog
Friday, June 07, 2013

chuck-bennett.jpgby Chuck Bennett, Director of Government Relations

There’s nothing simple about closing down a Session of the Legislature. Some years the whole thing looks pretty easy and then there’s 2013.  But one piece of advice, don’t pray for simplicity if a quarter billion dollars or so are on the table. In fact, with that kind of potential addition to the currently committed level of funding, K-12 is potentially on target to receive just north of $7 billion in the State School Fund.

Here’s where the desire for simplicity comes in. To achieve that higher goal from the currently reported $6.75 billion in cash and PERS savings, legislators are going to have to vote for more PERS law changes and additional taxes on someone. That’s a complicated proposition for a Legislature divided for and against each issue. What isn’t divisive in the discussion is the common conviction in Salem that the state’s public schools, health care system and post-secondary institutions need more funding. That is a huge step in the right direction for Oregon’s school children.

Despite publicized timelines, this will be one of those classic series of meetings led by the Governor and attended by leaders from both the House and Senate that leak rumors and often yield surprisingly successful results. Gov. Kitzhaber is a veteran of this approach as are Senate President Peter Courtney and Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli. House leaders Speaker Tina Kotek and Minority Leader Mike McLane are newer but gaining experience by the hour.

The most common question is, “What can I do to help make something happen on this?” The best answer is to contact your legislative delegation and tell them what a $7 billion k-12 budget would mean for the kids in your district in terms of teachers per classroom, number of school days, quality programs and especially improved achievement. Sometimes these numbers get so large, the reality of what they are used for at the student level gets lost in the per ADMw calculation. That’s where your ability to share individual stories of student or school opportunities driven by adequate funding can make all the difference.

Other than the funding, there are very few issues related to education still outstanding. The creation of an educator effectiveness network and strategic investments over and above the allocation to the State School Fund will await a final funding plan. A change in the due date for the state achievement compacts to Oct. 15 is scheduled for a vote Monday. All of the small schools issues are moving along quickly now or are passed into law. There are a couple of ESD issue unresolved but none of them represent major reorganization initiatives.

As soon as the Session ends, COSA and OSBA will go to work on an end of Session report to present a detailed review of the 2013 Legislature.

First day of 2013 session: Governor's address, the first 1,100 bills
Leader's Blog
Tuesday, January 15, 2013

chuck-bennett.jpgby Chuck Bennett, Director of Governmental Affairs

The first day of a legislative session has all the pomp you can expect to find in a democratic society. The state Supreme Court justices show up in robes, senators wear matching carnations and House members, often new to elective office, are surrounded by family members who are justifiably proud. And then you get to see the current and former governors, and just for the record, they each look a lot like the portraits of them in the second floor hallway of the Capitol. It’s sort of a Red Carpet event for political junkies without the high fashion commentary. It’s a lot of fun and celebration.

It also masks the seriousness of the situation. Ninety legislators and the governor are about the launch into the most polite cage fight you’ve ever seen. Topping the list of jobs to be done during what is expected to be a five-month-or-so session is balancing the state budget. Gov. Kitzhaber has already laid down the first marker on this one with his budget released in late November. For education the numbers were fairly stark --  $6.15 billion for the state school fund with the possibility of some level of savings if a package of proposed changes to PERS are enacted.

Monday’s opening day in Salem gave the governor another chance to make his case as he looked all 90 members in the eye listening to him deliver his State-of-the-Sate address. He covered a lot of territory but here’s how he framed the education issue for his lawmaking, budget balancing colleagues:

“…our long-term ability to reinvest in public education depends to a large extent on our success in proving up this (health) care model in the next biennium and then to extend it into the private market. If, for example, we could move public school teachers and state employees into the same kind of high quality, low cost care model being developed by our CCOs, the estimated ten year state savings could be as much as $5 billion. This would be a game changer for state finances and could lead to a huge competitive advantage for Oregon businesses both large and small.

“It costs $10,000 a year to keep a child in school but $30,000 a year to keep someone in prison. Our prison forecast predicts the need to build 2,300 new beds over the next decade at a cost of $600 million – and that most of those beds will be occupied by non-violent offenders. And the fact is that this $600 million – if spent on public education – would keep hundreds of people out of the criminal justice system in the first place.

“I recognize that the politics around public safety reform are often difficult – the fear of being labeled ‘soft on crime’ in the next election cycle. But I am asking you to find the courage and the honesty to recognize that if are unwilling act on this issue we will, by default, be choosing prisons over schools and condemning untold numbers of today’s students to a future in our system of corrections rather than in our system of postsecondary education.

“In this next biennium, the cost of primary and secondary education is going to increase by more that $1000 per student. Half of that $1000 – $500 per student – is accounted for by the increased cost of PERS alone; salary and other benefits account for another $430 per student. In short, we are faced with a situation in which we are going to increase our per pupil expenditure by $1000, and yet for this huge investment we will not see a reduction in average class size; we will not see the restoration of lost school days; and we will not be adding back programs like the arts or vocational studies.

"Let me be clear: this is not about the value of our teachers. It is not about the value of our public employees. It is also not about a major overhaul of a retirement system that continues to be one of the best funded in the nation. It is simply about trying to have a conversation that allows us to strike a balance between the cost of our retirement system and our ability to put dollars in the classroom today to ensure that our students are successful tomorrow. “

As the governor completed his remarks, lobbyists began collecting the two and a half boxes of new laws already in the legislative hopper. It was a whopping 1,122 new bills on the first day with the promise of about 3,000 more to come. On the first day, 99 bills directly dealt with some aspect of education from charter and on-line schools to proposed changes in the property tax system. We’ll take a look at those in the next few days.

Today, legislators are being trained in a range of tasks related to their new jobs. After the training sessions they will head home until Feb. 4 when they are scheduled to get down to the actual business of making law.

We’ll be keeping you posted in this column on what to expect, what’s happening and what was accomplished throughout the session. Please let us know if you have any questions by phone or email.

Great SSF presentation, and 'What's the Number?'
Leader's Blog
Thursday, September 20, 2012

chuck-bennett.jpgby Chuck Bennett, Director of Governmental Affairs


'Thumbs up' PowerPoint review

I’ll confess right out of the chute I’m not a big fan of PowerPoint presentations unless they’re part of a travelogue. My worst nightmare is a warm afternoon of slide reading as they flash onto the screen.  And when I say nightmare I mean I have fallen asleep and am jarred awake when my neighbor rips off a snore and then sounds like a candidate for the Heimlich maneuver.

I now have an exception to my “avoid-PowerPoint-presentations-at-all-costs” rule. It’s one I saw last week during a meeting of the House Interim Committee on Revenue. It was the work of Michael Elliott from the Oregon Department of Education.

Elliott took on one of the toughest issues in tax policy – explaining the state school fund formula – and he did a remarkable job of both clarifying its policy methods and objectives and explaining how it came to be.  Take a look at the presentation soothingly entitled, “Welcome to Your State School Fund.” Then, if you have the opportunity, invited him to one of your meetings and get the full value that comes with his outstanding discussion that goes with it.

Don’t think this is just an intellectual exercise. The reason he discussed the issue with the legislative committee is that there is a very likely chance there will be several legislative bills aimed at changes to the formula. I’ve been down this road enough to know that most folks don’t understand the formula, its purpose and perhaps most importantly, that it’s a distribution plan – not a spending plan. After years of listening to radio talk show hosts, it was also refreshing to have it explained that the amount spent per student is not a grant to the student for assignment in some future voucher scheme.

So, What’s the Number?

First, it’s very early in the game to set a goal for the State School Fund for 2013-15. We still have almost a year’s worth of state Revenue Forecasts before anyone knows how much money is on the table to fund Oregon government and local schools.  That said, let’s take a look at how the number might be determined.

“The Number,” as we affectionately refer to it, is the share of state revenues that goes to the State School Fund. Over the past several biennia it has been a steadily reduced share of the state General Fund. Right now it’s about 39.1% of the fund. That’s down from a high of 44.8% in 2003-05 but up slightly from 38.8% in 2009-11. The simplest way to determine where the figuring starts is to look at where the General Fund will be – and, based on the September forecast, it will be down slightly from the previous forecast by about $250 million. That means the current best estimate, if schools retain their previous share of the General Fund, is about $6.35 billion. The Quality Education Commission has done a re-do on funding needs and reset its target for school spending – to put the state school system on a trajectory to meet the ambitious 40/40/20 goal – at $6.895 billion.

What’s missing from these numbers is the poetry of politics – the slogans.  It usually sounds something like, “We’re still alive at 6.5,” or “Good but not great at $6.8.” Beyond that number you’re trying to rhyme with 7 and about all that works is “heaven.”

The speculation out there right now is something like this. Start with a basic funding level for the State School Fund that is a bit higher than our current share of the budget. Figure in the usual “carve outs” for specific programs or projects. Then add the funding that is expected to come as “key investments” funding.  It is hard right now to estimate which programs being reviewed by the Oregon Education Investment Board will be brought forward for funding, but programs on the table right now conservatively add up to about $500 million worth of possibilities. Simple math gets the total to around the “good but not great” level, which seems to be a minimum funding level needed to show we’re serious about investing in education and putting us on a path toward achieving 40/40/20.

Missing in all that figuring are the real numbers that matter: one governor, 31 members of the House of Representatives (a majority) and 16 Senators (another majority). If that doesn’t add up, you’ve got nada. And those numbers are being decided in November when half the Senate and all of the House are up for election. Without these basic numbers, all of the other discussions are very speculative. We’ll take another look after the election and see if all of this multiplication, addition and slogan writing needs a serious factor of reality added to it.


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