Oregon City Schools Superintendent Dr. Michael Zalar said there is a funding crisis in the public school system.
“School funding is a state-wide problem. It’s in a crisis situation. We’ve been in this crisis for 20 years now. And nothing seems to be getting done about it,” said Zalar, who spoke at a town hall meeting on April 20 at Starr Elementary School. The meeting was sponsored by Matt Szollosi, state representative from the 49th House District in Ohio.
“School funding is supposed to be a shared partnership,” said Zalar. “The system was set up that way from the get-go. The state and local communities are supposed to work together to produce the funds and revenues to provide free and high quality schools for public education.”
Most school districts by now have had to deal with their financial problems to get through the year, he said.
“The state won’t allow school districts to borrow money or to deficit spend. We have to balance our budgets. We have a five year forecast that we’re constantly updating and revising. It sort of fluctuates over time based on the way revenues come in, and other various projections,” he said.
The state has already taken control of districts that are in fiscal emergency, he noted.
“Nobody should want the state to come in and take control of their school district because of the draconian measures they will make to balance the budget - they don’t care about the quality of education. So it’s up to us as a community to stay out of that range,” he said.
Next year, more districts across the state will be under “financial caution” and “fiscal watch,” he said.
“Oregon schools will finish out next year in the black. The cuts and reductions that we made will carry us through not only this year, but next year as well. However, the following year, we’re not going to be alone. The impact is statewide. School funding is in crisis. The tax burden is being shifted from the state level onto the backs of local property owners. It puts us as school officials and board members in very awkward positions. We have to come back and give you the bad news and make the tough decisions - to cut programs, to cut services, and try to raise additional revenue in order to maintain a high quality public school system. That’s the way it’s been done in Ohio for public education,” said Zalar.
The problem, he said, is that students must learn technology in the 21st century to compete in a global economy.
“We can’t go back to the type of education that was provided in the 1950s and 1960s before technology. We’re in a global world today. And we’re not just competing with Sylvania or Maumee, but with India, China and Singapore. It’s a global marketplace. And education is not becoming less important today. It’s becoming more important. I’m not the financial person. I’m not the politician. I think education should be apolitical. This is not a Democrat or Republican issue. Education is a mindset,” said Zalar.
The district has been cutting millions from the budget for the last four to five years, he said.
The school board has cut another $2.4 million for next year.
“It’s been difficult. We’ve cut almost $9.5 million to try and just keep our head above water to deal with the lost revenue that we’ve had since 2005,” said Zalar.
“The cuts we’re making now - we’re getting down to the bone. You’re seeing some very basic programs and services that are being impacted. For those of you with kids in school, you’re feeling the squeeze,” he said.
The district’s staff has sacrificed with frozen wages, layoffs, and retirements that have not been filled, he said.
“We have sacrificed internally. We’re sacrificing as a community as well with the reductions in the services that we’re seeing. But we reduced staff. Our school budget, like every other school, is 80 percent personnel. We just have 20 percent that is non-personnel. It’s hard to cut millions of dollars out of that part of our budget. So most of our reductions have come on the backs of our personnel. We have two choices: Either we can pay less people, or we can pay people less. We’ve done both of those things,” he said.
The district has cut staff by 20 percent in the last five years, he said.
“The majority of reductions are through layoffs. Our staff has volunteered to take an absolute freeze on their wages last year. We’re one of two or three districts out of 614 districts in the state that volunteered an absolute freeze,” he said. Staff has also been without raises in four of the last five years, he said.
The district also renegotiated and restructured employee health insurance benefits that require more personal contributions from staff, he said.
“These are just some examples of what we’ve done. I know for some, that’s not enough. I know for the private sector, it’s tough out there, too. But people need to realize we are doing these things internally,” he said.
The district has also reduced school courses and electives, including fewer elective offerings in K-12, bigger class sizes, increased student school/participation fees, reduced opportunity for extra help. Reduced extra-curricular opportunities, reduced transportation services, eliminated busing for high school students, and closed one elementary school.
“We’re still trying to maintain our high quality and academic core. And I think we’re doing that. But my message is, we’re very close to losing that,” he said.
One man asked Zalar why administrative and teaching staff have not had their wages cut as have many workers in the private sector due to the economic recession.
“That’s not going to solve our problem,” said Zalar, “because the system is broke. The problem is in Columbus with the way schools are funded. We can’t cut our way out of this mess, no matter where the cuts come from. You might feel better if it came off the salaries of the employees. But that’s not going to solve the problem. We need structural changes.”
“The system also has to be fixed in the district,” countered the man.
“The philosophy that I’ve tried to promote, and I think our board has bought into this, is the shared sacrifice mentality,” said Zalar. “We are trying to share that sacrifice across the board. Everybody’s feeling the pain right now.”
“It’s the kids that are feeling the pain, it’s the parents that are feeling the pain,” said the man. “I’m not seeing a whole lot of pain from the other way.”