Salem: Get it done for the schools

Vanessa Wilkins /

Published Sep 28, 2013 at 05:00AM / Updated Jan 16, 2014 at 01:54PM

Gov. Kitzhaber has called Oregon lawmakers back to the Capitol for a special session to vote on reforms that could reduce our Public Employees Retirement System liability for $4.6 billion and raise $244 million in additional revenue for schools. With Bend-La Pine Schools alone, those changes could add back 45 teachers.

Oregon’s kids have suffered through increasing class sizes, cuts to P.E., music and art, and school years shorter than the national average for most of the last decade.

Last week, The Oregonian reported that those cuts may have taken a toll on student achievement in its article titled “Oregon test scores nose dive.” Other articles over the last year have reported that Oregon has the third-largest class sizes and one of the worst graduation rates in the country. This puts our kids at a disadvantage competing for jobs and college admission with kids from Washington state and many other states.

We have the opportunity now to turn things around. Equitable PERS reforms and dedicated revenue streams to support education will go a long way toward making Oregon’s schools strong again. Conversely, if we don’t act now, all Central Oregon school districts will face starkly increasing pension costs starting July 1, 2015. That means money will once again be diverted from classrooms to fund Oregon’s increasingly unsustainable pension costs. Legislators can prevent this from happening by compromising on common sense reforms when they head back to Salem on Sept. 30.

Central Oregonians have played a pivotal role in architecting these important reforms. Last week, two Central Oregon legislators, Sen. Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day (541-490-6528), and Rep. Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte (503-986-1400), were part of a group of four legislative leaders meeting at the governor’s mansion to work out a deal that legislators will vote on during the special session. Rep. John Huffman, R-The Dalles (541-298-5959), represents Sisters and has been a strong supporter of schools.

As part of the Stand for Children’s State Finance Committee and the Sisters Local Option Strategy Team, I have studied school finance issues in Oregon and can attest that statewide reforms are necessary to put schools back on solid footing, improve student achievement and attract new businesses to Oregon that can bring new jobs and improve our economy.

By adhering to reform principals of adequacy, sustainability and meaningful fiscal impact, our legislators have an opportunity to create an equitable solution to a significant K-12 budgetary threat.

• Adequacy: Beneficiaries of PERS should have an adequate retirement income.

• Sustainability: The reform should support the plan’s long-term viability.

• Meaningful fiscal impact: Any reform(s) should meaningfully reduce the system’s unfunded liabilities and provide fiscal relief in 2013-15 budgetary cycle and beyond.

In Sisters, we support our schools and our teachers. Seventy-nine percent of voters here voted to continue the local option that saved Sisters from the huge class sizes that some of our counterparts around the state have faced.

Our teachers and administrators have made huge sacrifices to keep class sizes small and keep the programs that make Sisters special. We have a chance now to make a difference for this year and for the long term, here and across the state.

I hope you’ll join Stand for Children, the Sisters Local Option Strategy team and many other common sense organizations in Oregon in telling our legislators to, as we say in Sisters, “get ’er done.”

Better schools bring better jobs, a better economy and a better future. Call your representatives and tell them you support their efforts to equitably reform PERS and sustainably fund Oregon’s schools. We will all benefit.

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