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Lawmakers try again to help schools

Although recent efforts to reform Gain Share legislation to channel more funding into school districts around the state have not been successful, state Reps. Ben Unger and Joe Gallegos are not suspending their efforts to boost public education.

The two freshmen Democrats from Hillsboro are back with a bill that would keep public school teachers from being laid off in financially struggling school districts.

Gallegos and Unger are among several legislators co-sponsoring House Bill 2009, which would allow school districts with budget deficits to apply for a supplemental grant to save the jobs of teachers if the district meets certain requirements.

The other sponsors of the bill include state Sen. Chris Edwards (D-Eugene); state Rep. Brian Clem (D-Salem); state Rep. Shemia Fagan (D-Clackamas); and state Rep. Brent Barton (D-Clackamas County).

Unger said the group of legislators jointly wrote the bill, dubbed the “Teacher Fund,” with “lots of advice about how to set it up from a whole host of legislators and the Department of Education.”

“The bill is written so new dollars must be used for keeping teachers and saving school days,” said Unger.

Unger explained that if HB 2009 is passed into law, school districts that still have budget holes at the currently proposed $6.75 billion budget level (such as Hillsboro) would be able to apply for a grant to fill that district’s respective budget deficit.

HB 2009 would allow eligible school districts to apply for one-time grants for the 2013-15 biennium, and the grants would be allocated to small school districts based on their weighted average daily membership (student enrollment).

“School districts throughout Oregon are facing steep cuts,” said Gallegos. “We cannot afford any more laid-off teachers or cut days. This bill addresses Oregon’s school funding problem in a targeted and responsible way.”

Unger pointed out that in exchange for the financial help, school districts would need to meet transparency and accountability requirements, including making all funds and accounts public and available electronically.

“This includes savings and reserve accounts, all of them — and making sure reserve accounts are not increasing with these dollars,” said Unger. “This way, we know for sure there’s no hiding the ball with dollars that would mean we’re unintentionally super-subsidizing some school districts.

“The key accountability piece is that if you choose to get the subsidy, you can’t increase your reserve fund.”

Unger believes the legislation would put a halt to teacher layoffs, at least for a short period, and the bill’s authors claimed the fund would have a direct and significant impact. Proponents said HB 2009 would provide about $3 million for Eugene, which faces a $12 million deficit for 2013-14; $4 million for Hillsboro (a $7 million deficit); $8 million for Salem/Keizer ($18 million deficit); and it would fully close a $2.8 million deficit for North Clackamas.

“In many districts, it would eliminate layoffs,” Unger said. “In Hillsboro, it would eliminate almost all of our layoffs. If you combine those resources with Gain Share and some other cost-saving bills I’m working on, we could finally get the ‘no cuts budget’ we deserve.”

Unger added, however, there’s no grant funding yet set up.

“The money would have to come from a source of money not yet identified,” said Unger. “It’s unclear if we’re going to get a grand bargain or a small bargain. If we get a small bargain, this might be the one.”

Unger conceded it’s not likely the bill will gain much traction as the current legislative session winds down.

On Monday, the Legislature passed a new K-12 schools budget that would provide $6.75 billion for 2013-15, but it took no action on HB 2009.

“To be honest, until the Senate decides to do something or nothing on revenue/PERS (Public Employee Retirement System), we’re not going to get much action on anything else,” said Unger.



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