New Hires (copy) (copy)

Juniper Elementary teacher Carrie Price talks about a math equation with her fifth grade class on Feb. 13, 2020.

In February, Bend-La Pine Schools leaders believed they would get $18 million in new funding to hire more than 125 new staffers and increase opportunities for underserved students. This came courtesy of the new state Student Success Act business tax.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic shrunk that funding to $4.4 million this summer, and along with it the district's plans for additional teachers. The new reality forced Bend-La Pine leaders to pursue a similar, but scaled-down plan, hiring fewer teachers and staffers than expected.

Superintendent Lora Nordquist said she was happy to receive any extra funding at all, given the economic severity of COVID-19. 

“Until really late in the summer, we weren’t optimistic about getting anything," she told the Bend-La Pine School Board at its Tuesday night meeting. "So it felt a little like a gift to even have ($4.4 million)."

During the legislative special session in August, state lawmakers reduced the statewide funding pool for school districts — dubbed the Student Investment Account — from $472 million to $150 million, according to Peter Rudy, spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Education.

Bend-La Pine's new spending plan for its Student Investment Account funding is very similar to its original plan crafted earlier in 2020 by former Superintendent Shay Mikalson, who left the district June 30.

The primary goals are still to reduce class sizes, support student health and safety and increase access for historically underserved student groups — such as students in special education classes and those who identify with a race or ethnicity other than Asian or white.

But these plans have shrunk in scale. For example, instead of hiring more than 50 teachers districtwide, Bend-La Pine hired 26 teachers, Nordquist said.

Those new teachers were placed strategically for COVID-19-era schooling. Seven of them are teaching for the Bend-La Pine Schools online program and 19 are K-3 teachers.

The district hired many new early elementary teachers because those are the earliest grade levels that could come back if COVID-19 cases fall locally. Each student must have 35 square feet of space, according to state education guidelines, so more classrooms — and more teachers — were needed, Nordquist said.

The district also hired two classified staffers — people without teaching degrees — and plans to bring in 19 more educational assistants as schools reopen, Nordquist wrote in an email Wednesday.

Those new educational assistants will be trained to support students' social-emotional needs, Nordquist wrote. The district's original plan was to hire more than 25 mental health-focused staffers, with an emphasis on elementary school counselors.

The district has also entered a contract with Massachusetts-based educational organization BRYT, using the new funding. BRYT will also train school staff on social-emotional support for students, Nordquist wrote.

Finally, the district plans to hire a new administrator by the end of 2020 to oversee social-emotional learning districtwide, she wrote.

The Bend-La Pine School Board is scheduled to vote on approving the new funding plan at its November meeting.

Planning for the next round of Student Investment Account funding for the 2021-23 biennium, spanning two school years, will start in January. It's unclear whether funding will return to normal levels before then, Nordquist said Tuesday.

"It depends on tax collection," she told the school board. "There’s volatility."

Carrie Douglass, chair of the school board, expressed approval with Nordquist's modified plan.

“It seems like you have done the best you can with fewer resources than we were hoping for," Douglass said Tuesday night.

Reporter: 541-617-7854, jhogan@bendbulletin.com

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