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From the Desk of Salem Keizer School Board Director, Satya Chandragiri MD

Written by Satya Chandragiri MD on Feb. 27th, 2024
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It would be naïve on our part to think that everything will fall in place after the perfect storm that we all endured- COVID- 19 pandemic, social and economic disruption, social unrest, political polarization, and worldwide turmoil. While the world seemed to fall apart, I also witnessed acts of courage, love, and compassion from our teachers, school staff, health care workers, law enforcement officers and many others. No matter how hard it gets, as a parent, physician, and a public servant, I cannot walk out. All our children, families, teachers, staff, patients, and our nation need us. This is all we have. I was there then, and I will be there now.

In Salem Keizer schools, we are facing two very important challenges- addressing budget shortfall and completing the bargaining process and reaching a fair settlement with our educators and staff.   These two issues are independent and yet related. We all want the same- for all our children to be safe and have a better future and be productive citizens. To get there we need highly qualified and experienced teachers and staff, well-funded good public schools, ideally class size with 12-18 students per teacher ratio, schools with high concentrations of poverty to be funded at least 21% more than schools without high concentration of poverty, high quality educational programs, dual language immersion model of schools and programs that helps our students to have a sense of belonging in our schools.  I have been spending hours in meetings where I am finally able to ask hard questions, be open and have honest and transparent discussions.  I have also been reading and learning about the complexities of school funding not only in our state but also researching other successful leading states including Massachusetts.  I have been comparing the funding models of various states. I reached out to Oregon Department of Education, Oregon School Board Association, other school boards including rural schools, many communities, and stakeholders to get to the bottom of this challenge. As a board director, I want to know what we missed and why did we miss that we are at this point now.  After all the buck stops with the Board!

Why do we have to get our budgetary challenges under control?

The gap between our Salem Keizer schools revenue and expenses has been widening and our end fund balance (savings) continued to decline to a very low level. We had been using the end fund balance to balance the budget.  Not only that it would have violated our policies, but if left unchecked it would have taken us to financial insolvency and triggered many unthinkable consequences.  It takes about $40 million a month to meet the payroll expenses alone!   

ESSER funds and the financial cliff:   This fund allowed us to add staff and address some of the challenges we faced during the pandemic. The ESSER grant will end in 2024 and we will face a financial cliff.  We do not have any savings to buffer this sudden drop, nor the state has any plans for increasing school funding sufficiently to absorb the financial cliff.  This will result in downsizing our organization as nearly 87% of our expenditure is staff salary.

School funding: In Oregon the bulk of the unrestricted funding towards the public schools (70%) comes from the state general funds.  This along with a small portion of the local property tax is the only unrestricted school funds.   Oregon is supposed to rely on Quality Education Model committee, created by the state Legislature in 1999 to recommend the cost of educating students. They consider many factors including small class size of 20 students to a teacher, four-year graduation as an outcome.  In addition to adequacy, they are also expected to focus on equity.  Unfortunately, our legislature has never fully funded the public schools as recommended by the Quality education model committee it created!  No one has performed any new costing out study after the pandemic and they are still making assumptions based on pre pandemic projections.  Oregon has a regressive school funding model unlike Massachusetts.  The gap between recommended versus state appropriated school fund varies from 25% to 35%. One wonders if Oregon has ever met its own constitutional obligation even though article VIII Section 8 of Oregon constitution requires that the state fund education equitably. However, the legislature has never adhered to their constitutional obligations by hiding under some technical details.  

Complete the bargaining process and reach a fair settlement with our educators and staff union?

With the bargaining reaching an impasse and potential for strike, it is very hard for everyone. Many staff members are worried about losing their jobs and the financial impact. Salem Keizer School district has nearly 5000 employees and is one of the large employers in Salem and Keizer.  We all want our teachers and staff to be paid well, safety in our schools and have smaller class sizes so that our students can learn and do well. I only wish we had the money.

There is no doubt that the district will have to take steps to close the gap between the money coming in and the money going out. The district has already announced that they will be reducing number of staff members. The final contract with the unions will determine how many staff members will be reduced. It is important to make sure that the reduction in staff does not affect the safety or academic goals of the students.

As we are facing tough challenges, it is critical that we all take a restorative just approach. This means keeping our children, teachers, and staff at the center while trying to create harmony between the culture, structure, and process of the organization. In the end let’s make sure that everyone is safe, healthy, and engaged, and that the goals for our children are achieved. 

Satya Chandragiri MD

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