Budget season typically raises dire warnings — and spending cuts — for school districts across Oregon.
This year, however, Hood River County School District hopes to buck the trend and start adding back programs, according to Superintendent Dan Goldman.
Goldman this month introduced a proposed budget of roughly $130 million for the 2016-2017 school year. The fiscal plan includes new teaching positions and boosted support for programs districtwide.
“Our long-term budget approach is cautiously optimistic,” Goldman said. “We’ve saved on the operational side to the point where we’re comfortable to add (programs).”
Goldman attributed the positive financial outlook to cost-saving measures and planning by the district board and staff, “substantial” grant funding, and an unexpected increase in state spending the Oregon Legislature adopted last year.
On the local level, one of the crucial measures the district took to save money was a staggered bus schedule, started in 2014, which hewed down transportation (and fleet replacement) costs, Goldman said. Another was a tech systems overhaul.
For the first time in about 10 years, the district is poised to make new hires and strengthen existing initiatives, instead of making reductions.
Local elementary schools would feel the largest hiring surge with six full-time employees: two physical education teachers, two music educators and two counselors, as well as a part-time reading teacher at Cascade Locks Elementary School.
Hood River Middle School and Wy’east Middle School would get expanded Spanish and dual language programs. Other benefits would give extra muscle to middle school robotics and the AVID college and career readiness program.
Hood River Valley High School would get a new alternative education teacher, a part-time AVID position, and funding for diverse programs like robotics, eCar, media, FFA and lacrosse. The goal of bolstering the alternative school is to ease class sizes at HRVHS, Goldman said.
While the financial picture is brighter than the district has seen in years, challenges still remain for local school funding.
Like all Oregon school districts, HRCSD faces climbing PERS (Public Employee Retirement System) rates in 2017-18, increases to health care costs related to the Affordable Care Act, and minimum wage hikes, according to district budget reports. The 2016-2017 budget strives to address those labor costs.
The budget includes about $750,000 for the program additions, but that rollout will hinge on Measure 14-58, a $57 million school bond up for vote on the May 17 Primary Election.
In February, the HRCSD School Board put the bond on the ballot and adopted the Facilities Master Plan that will guide the building improvements and expansions across the district that bond revenue would pay for. If approved, it would mean no increase in the current tax rate of $1.83 per thousand, as an existing bond measure expires in June 2016.
Goldman said he remains cautious because the new budget is “predicated on the assumption that we’re going to be able to pass the bond.”
If the bond passes, the suggested programs and positions will stay intact, Goldman said, but if it fails, the new investments — and teaching jobs — would be reduced or cut out.
Repairs for failing infrastructure would take higher priority, overriding those expenditures. Without bond funding, Goldman expects the district would have to dip into reserve funds and take out a loan to pay off the looming infrastructure costs.
“We have to have heat, and we have to have schools that don’t have massive (roof) leaks,” Goldman said.
One example of troublesome equipment is the Hood River Middle School boiler, which broke down last spring. Staff replaced it in 2015 with a temporary boiler, paid for out of the general fund.
Facilities are the main focus of the bond on 14-58. The voting public will decide whether to approve that measure within the week — Primary Election Day is Tuesday.
The emerging 2016-2017 HRCSD budget will soon move from the committee stage to the school board. After a final budget committee meeting on May 19, the School Board expects to hold a pair of meetings vetting the plan before adopting it in early June.