Oregon City Schools Superintendent Dr. Mike Zalar at a special school board meeting Nov. 4 rallied supporters of the 5.9-mill emergency levy, which was defeated on Nov. 2, and urged them to remain united to resolve a $2 million budget deficit expected in the next school year.
“We had tremendous support from the board of education, from our teaching staff, classified support staff, administrative team, and the community,” said Zalar. “I think we set new standards in terms of the amount of money that we raised to run that campaign, the number of volunteers who contributed their time. I’ve heard from many, many people about the amount of information that was published. I don’t think anybody can say they weren’t aware we were on the ballot, they weren’t aware of what the issues were.”
Voters on Nov. 2 rejected the levy for the second time since 2009 by a vote of 3,605 to 1,119.
The school board has cut nearly $8 million from the budget in the last few years as a result of House Bill 66, which phased out tangible personal property taxes for businesses and created budgetary shortfalls for several school districts.
In a position paper issued by the district this summer, the board will slash an additional $2 million from the budget as a result of the levy’s defeat, including cutting 20 additional teaching and staff positions, eliminating the Career & Tech program, reducing kindergarten from all day every day to all day every other day, increasing athletic participation fees, reducing cleaning services to buildings, eliminating or significantly reducing bus service for all high school students, and implementing a process to close an elementary school and/or reconfigure the district.
“Our financial picture is very bleak,” said Zalar. “We’ve got some real challenges on our hands. This district has lost in excess of $7 million annually. That’s a huge percentage of our budget. We have about a $40 million budget. Now, we’re on the brink of $2 million more being reduced. That’s significant.”
Zalar said the levy passed in only two precincts.
“I was disappointed we didn’t get more support across the board. But that’s where we are. These are tough economic times. And we certainly understand that. The board and administration, as a district, don’t have a lot of good options here. Many of you have been in attendance of some of the community forums I had convened and you remember that I started out with the statement that when the watering hole dries up, we’ll start to look at each other differently. And I think this gathering tonight is very symbolic of that. We have a lot of folks in the room who are concerned about what’s going to happen next, about the $2 million we identified as the next reductions. These are the items that were published leading up to the levy campaign in terms of consequences. Part of our problem is that we don’t have time to recoup this money other than asking the voters to dig a little bit deeper and pay a little bit more on their property. I think the levy amount that was put forward was reasonable, 5.9-mills. For the owner of a $100,000 home, it is $15 per month to maintain what we currently enjoy, high quality, high standard education. Obviously, the voters did not support that. So in order for us to end the school year in the black next year, we have to cut $2 more million, and it’s not going to be easy,” said Zalar.
“This is the fourth round of cuts,” Zalar continued. “We started this process the year before I came into this position, with a previous board of education, the previous superintendent. I want to remind the community that this staff has sacrificed significantly with the kind of wage and salary and benefit concessions throughout the process. Just this past year, $1.3 million was conceded back to the district to try and keep teachers in the classrooms, to provide services to keep programs for kids. But it’s not enough. So we’re in a very unfortunate situation for the board of education to come up with $2 million more to kick the can down the road one more year. And that’s all we’re doing here. We’re behind the curve, behind the eight ball. We don’t have a rainy day fund, and it doesn’t look like we’re going to be getting any knight in shining armor riding in on a white horse from Columbus.”
Election results, he added, show that there’s a lot of uncertainty about schools throughout the state.
“So I think it’s incumbent upon us as a community that you have to decide what kind of school system you want to have. We have had more community forums in the last year or two probably in the history of the district. It’s unfortunate at times that we just get a handful of people that show up to those meetings,” he said.
“We have a serious problem. And it’s not going to be solved by just cutting and cutting and dismantling the school system. I don’t think anybody wants to have an inferior school in your community. Great schools create great communities, and vice versa. This community has always been supportive of their schools. I have faith we’ll get through this. We’re not unlike many districts across the state,” he said.
Zalar noted that few operating levies on the ballot in the area were passed on Nov. 2.
“The only levies I saw being approved were renewals, very small millage permanent improvement, stuff like that,” he said.
“It’s going to be incumbent upon us as a community to try and resolve the situation. One concern I do have is that, like animals at a dried up watering hole, we start looking at each other differently and start targeting each other. This isn’t anybody’s fault that’s in this room. This problem is the result of things we have no control over. The state has a huge deficit they’re facing. And they don’t know where the money’s going to come from. There’s going to be a lot of difficult decisions made very shortly. But we have a lot at stake here. We need to rally together, support each other, and work the problem,” he said.
Zalar suggested that the board convene a work session soon to begin making the cuts.
“We know we don’t have a lot of time. We need to be careful in terms of how we move forward, because the decisions we make are going to impact this district and community for years to come. Some of those items that we identified will have a significant impact on the way the district operates and the effectiveness it’s going to have with our students,” he said.
The cuts, he said, will be “permanent reductions.”
“These are not things that, if the levy passes, we’re going to bring back. So our district has been diminished as a result of this process,” he said.