Sisters School District still paying debt

District owes state money for inflated enrollment from 2000s

By Tyler Leeds / The Bulletin

The Sisters School District is still paying the price for mistakes made more than a decade ago when the district over-reported its number of enrolled students to the state.

In 2007, Sisters began making annual payments on a $1.2 million debt owed to the Oregon Department of Education after a 2006 state audit found the district inappropriately inflated the number of participants in its home-school program from 1999 to 2004 by counting students at a private Christian school. In Oregon, school funding is awarded to districts on a per-student basis.

Since 2007, the district has made multiple attempts to lessen the punishment. After the state determined the debt owed was $1.2 million, the district requested the amount be lowered by $742,200, which the Education Department refused. In 2012, the district asked the department to give it a three-year extension to 2018 to pay back the debt. The department also denied this request.

According to Crystal Greene, the department’s communications director, the district has a remaining balance of $418,314.55 and has $120,828.60 withheld from its March State School Fund payment every year.

“What I’m doing right now is I’m taking money from my general fund to pay for mistakes made a long time ago,” said Superintendent Jim Golden, who was not with the district when the number of enrolled students was inflated. “At the time, many of us believed the accounting system ODE had at the time was not good, and there was a lot of confusion about what was proper and what was not. I wasn’t here back then, and at this point we’ll live with it, but it’s the students who are suffering.”

Golden said the money could be used for “dozens of things,” but emphasized that in terms of staff, the annual withholding costs the district one full-time teacher and a teaching assistant.

“It’s going to be a drag on our budget for the next three or four years, and we’re just starting to dig out of the Great Recession,” Golden said. “Most districts are just beginning to try to add things back now, and there are other costs coming up.”

Golden specified the price of preparing students for the new Smarter Balanced state assessments, which replace the Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills as Oregon’s standardized test. Smarter Balanced will be based on the Common Core, a set of math and reading standards adopted by states across the country.

“I feel like we’re getting further behind,” Golden said.

The district has had trouble with other nontraditional education programs. In 2013, Tim King and Norm Donohoe settled with the state for nearly $500,000 each after they were accused of mismanaging $17 million in state education funds awarded to a chain of charter schools they ran. Three of the pair’s schools were in Sisters.

“Our board has been very clear that we are not going to be involved in any charter schools or other sort of new adventures or endeavors,” Golden said. “We’re going to focus on our mission, which is to educate every kid every day and stay focused on providing for the three schools we have.”

— Reporter: 541-633-2160, tleeds@bendbulletin.com