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School district authorizes cuts

In what has become an annual event, North Wasco County School District 21’s school board has authorized a “reduction in force” of up to 10 full-time employees for the coming school year.

“It makes everyone’s stomach turn a little bit that this has become a tradition,” board chairman Robert Bissonette said.

The board is required to declare a reduction in force ahead of budget season if the latest financial forecast available from the Oregon Department of Education indicates that the district may need to cut more jobs. This year the district’s administration has predicted it may be necessary to cut the equivalent of as many as 10 full-time positions.

“This is the worst-case scenario, should everything fall apart,” Superintendent Candy Armstrong told the school board. “As always, we’re going to try to work as hard as we can to keep it from happening.”

She said the district’s budget has been pared down so much in the last few years that cutting from the personnel category is the only option when faced with a significant shortfall.

In a follow-up interview Armstrong said she has been meeting with principals to get their recommendations on which cuts would least hinder students’ learning.

“For example we met with elementary principals today and talked about what would the plan look like if we did have to make those cuts,” she said. “Right now we’re doing a lot of ‘what ifs’ and saying ‘If we reduced this here and moved this here what would it look like?’”

The district currently employs 154 licensed teachers and about 320 people total. Last year it declared a reduction in force of five FTE but Armstrong said only one licensed person was actually laid off and the other cuts were made by not replacing people who retired or moved.

Going into the 2011-2012 school year, the district declared reduction in force of up to 20 teachers. A few of those jobs were saved by an agreement to take six furlough days, but that memorandum of understanding expires this year.

Armstrong said adding those six days back to the payroll is one of financial hits District 21 will take next year that will cancel out an increase in education spending that the legislature is planning to make. Another hit comes from the end of the Safe Schools Healthy Students grant. The district will also be affected by federal sequester cuts that will mean less money from areas like Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

“Information is slowly rolling out to us. For sure we have already seen cuts in regular federal programs we depend on, but some of the others we’re not sure yet,” Armstrong said.

The district’s biggest problem has been payments to the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS), which have been increasing every year and will cost the district more again next year.

Legislators have pledged to combine their proposed education budget of $6.55 billion with reforms that would provide schools with relief from rising PERS costs, leaving more money to spend on teachers. But District 21’s chief financial officer, along with many others, has expressed a belief that any attempt at reform will be held up in a lengthy court battle and will not be resolved in time to help schools during 2013-2014.

“It’s more complex than ‘if we just fix PERS the economy in Oregon would be fixed,’ but if we don’t fix PERS it is going to mean real trouble for education,” Armstrong told the school board during their April 9 meeting. “We need to advocate for sustainable change over time to the system.”

Since 2008 an estimated 7,000 teachers have been laid off in Oregon.

District 21’s first budget committee meeting for 2013-2014 is scheduled for May 9 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Wahtonka campus.

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