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Oregon school officials search for solutions to funding crisis

A Medford School District building in downtown on March 1, 2024.
Erik Neumann
A Medford School District building in downtown on March 1, 2024.

School districts throughout Oregon are facing massive budget shortfalls, leading to big cuts.

School districts have blamed these shortfalls on declining enrollment, inflation, the end of emergency COVID money for schools, increasing special education enrollment and inadequate state funding.

Superintendents for four school districts — Salem-Keizer, Portland, Bend-La Pine and Medford — recently released a video asking the state to reconsider its funding formula.

Speaking on JPR's Jefferson Exchange on Wednesday, Bend-La Pine Superintendent Steve Cook acknowledged that the district has given much-needed cost of living adjustments to staff.

But he said the way that school districts calculate costs is different from how the state makes those funding calculations.

"It isn’t necessarily that we’re saying ‘fix the problem that we’ve created.’ We’re saying we want to draw attention to the fact that right now, there are decisions being made without all of the accurate and exact funding conversations being talked about," he said.

For example, Cook and Medford Superintendent Bret Champion said the state does not adequately consider cost of living adjustments or how expensive it is to live in Oregon in its funding.

"It isn't necessarily that the entire formula is broken. There's some tweaks that we believe that can be made. And we believe that coming into the conversation with an open mindset about the true costs and what it takes to live here [is important,]" Cook said.

Bend-La Pine is cutting $21 million from its budget over the next two years, including about 60 positions this year, which Cook said will be accomplished through attrition, resignations and retirements.

In 2023, the state legislature allocated $10.2 billion in school funding for the biennium, the most ever.

But according to the Oregon Department of Education's Quality Education Commission, the state has consistently failed to give enough funding for schools to provide a quality education.

The Medford School District is also facing a $15 million budget shortfall over the next two years.

Their budget for the upcoming school year cuts over 32 positions, and Champion said the budget for the following school year will be even worse.

"The school year after that, we’re done with the easier cuts. It’s going to be a dramatic change in service levels if we end up having to cut another $7.5 million in the next school year," he said.

In addition, the Ashland School District will lay off about 19 staff at the end of this school year.

Jane Vaughan is a regional reporter for Jefferson Public Radio. Jane began her journalism career as a reporter for a community newspaper in Portland, Maine. She's been a producer at New Hampshire Public Radio and worked on WNYC's On The Media.