by Ron Myers

By now there can’t be more than a handful of Oregonians who don’t know that the Portland Public School District is in dire straits. We have been and continue to be inundated by countless analyses of the problems and the myriad solutions associated therewith. The anguished cries of frustrated parents, displaced students, outraged teachers and disenchanted administrators ring loud and true across the educational, political and social landscape of our great state, from the commotion of urban regions to the solitude of the frontier, which is where I call home.So, if rigorous budget-tightening and closing schools are the effects of the problem in Oregon’s most densely populated area, what’s the cause? Frankly, this is the remarkable part of the whole situation — the cause of the problem is exactly the same as it is in the most sparsely populated frontier school districts — declining enrollment. Most of the state’s smallest school districts have been dealing with this issue for well over two decades — the reasons for declining enrollment may be different in Multnomah County than in Gilliam County, but the result is the same.

Rural education advocates take no pleasure in the fact that urban students and parents are being forced to come to grips with something that threatens to deprive students of equitable access to quality education. Neither do we feel vindicated by in vogue media blitz coverage of a problem that has been a grave threat to rural and frontier rural schools for over twenty years — what we do feel is sincere empathy for the unfortunate position in which Portland students and parents, through no fault of their own, find themselves. We know — we’ve been there, we are there and we will continue to be there until we’re successful in reversing a 4-5% per year decline in enrollment. With all due respect and compassion for your plight, welcome to our world.

While it is surely no less distressing to face school closures in Portland than it is in any frontier rural community, it is less problematic logistically because there are other schools comparatively close to which students can be redirected. That option simply doesn’t exist when schools are separated by fifty, sixty or more miles of icy two-lane highways and gravel roads, so frontier school districts have few options but to further reduce already provably inadequate services. And, the economic, social and cultural reality of rural school closures is that when a rural community loses its school, for all practical intents and purposes that community is devastated beyond its reasonable ability or capacity to recover.

What’s the REAL QUESTION? The real question is a matter of policy — the real question is whether or not it is or will become the policy of the State of Oregon that certain students, the schools they attend and the communities in which they live are simply expendable. Further, that in the absence of policy providing otherwise, certain communities and the residents therein — whether northeast Portland or northeast Gilliam County – are by virtue of their location or coincidental and often provisional circumstances not entitled to basic services. The real question concerns establishment of policy that within the context of the state’s fiduciary obligation to the welfare of its citizens defines and directs the just apportionment of resources. And, I would propose that in this particular instance rural and urban folks have both a common interest in the process and an equal stake in the outcome.

Finally, in this very real problem lies a very real opportunity to at least momentarily put aside our differences in the best interests of our children and work together to craft a workable and equitable solution. And maybe — just maybe — in so doing we can provide a framework for the future to build bridges across Oregon and engage in the business of inclusive problem solving, fully cognizant of the fact that even though urban and rural solutions are necessarily and manifestly different, the spirit and purpose of the process are exactly the same — to make possible a better life for all Oregonians, regardless of where they live.

[Ron is 58 years old and have lived in Oregon my entire life. He reside in Condon, where my family settled 121 years ago. He is married and have one son who lives in Oregon City. Ron attended Condon Grade School, Condon High School and Oregon State University and is now a self-employed interaction management consultant engaged in the business of consulting and lobbying for several rural and frontier rural Eastern Oregon clients. His areas of particular expertise and experience are telecommunications, education and health care — my clients are, have always been and will always be exclusively rural and frontier rural. Among other activities Ron sits on the Oregon Telecommunications Coordinating Council, the Eastern Oregon Telecommunications Consortium board, the Oregon Republican Party Rural-Urban Bridge Committee and the State Interoperability Executive Council Partnership Committee. Ron also acts as a special assistant to the Co-Chairs of the 2005 Public Commission on the Legislature and is currently a declared candidate for the office of Gilliam County Judge.]

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Posted by at 07:00 | Posted in Measure 37 | 3 Comments |Email This Post Email This Post |Print This Post Print This Post
  • Doug

    To dramatically change the budget you must look at the largest expences first, employees. School budgets would not be streached as far if you could change the PERS contribution. Right now 27% of every dollar is spent on the retirement plan. In Washington it is 9%. Think of the relief if the school district could use that 18%.
    Look at how many companies in the private sector are getting out of retirement plans, because they can no longer offord them. Why isn’t the state of Oregon following their lead rather than devising ways to get more money.

  • Marvinlee

    Doug is right, salary costs and benefits have outstripped Oregon’s willingness to pay, and pay. We pay more for salaries and benefits than states with comparable per capita incomes and cannot fix the problem because of the excessive power wielded like a bludgeon by the various public employees’ unions.

    The downsizing trend would be much more manageable if only teacher and other education salaries and benefits could be made more realistic.

    In a world with six billion consumers and vast intractable poverty, it is unlikely that the planet can add more population and still offer hope for major gains in global well being. We are extremely dependent on high energy consumption in the USA and world reserves are not going to support continual energy consumption increases. Education needs to start adjusting now.

  • Jay Haight

    Actually, I believe that Doug’s view – while accurate – is oversimplistic. As Marvin correctly notes, the main problem with school funding is not the amount we as taxpayers pay, but the overall benefits package.

    In addition to the PERS contribution, school staff receive generous health-care benefits – benefits that I have to contribute part of my paycheck to acquire each week are provided to school staff without such an in-kind contribution requirement.

    Moreover, there is the structure of the school system itself, which is inefficient and overly-bureaucratic. Do we really need to pay some 160 separate school superintendents? In the PDX area alone, I believe we pay around $1.2 million each year – just in salaries – to the various superintendents. Add to the figure the cost of benefits packages. Add to that the costs of support staff.

    Is there any earthly reason why Vickie Phillips and her staff could not fulfill the same functions for Gresham-Barlow, Reynolds, and Corbett school districts as they do for Portland Public Schools?

    Do we really need to have separate superintendents and their associated staffs in each and every school district?

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