SCHOOLS NEED TO LOOK AT CONSOLIDATING SERVICES
At a quick glance, the education issue in Oregon might be boiled down to some simple math equations.
SINCE 1990, five of the six school districts in Union County have seen their revenue increase by over 30 percent, from $18.43 million annually to $24.02 million. That is an additional $5.59 million. The La Grande School District's general fund has bulged from $11 million in 1990 to over $16 million (proposed for 2002-03), a 45 percent increase. During the same period of time, the
district's student population has dropped from 2,912 to 2,274, a decline of 638 or 28 percent. That works out to a cost per student in 1990 of $3,777 compared to $7,036 for the coming year, an 86 percent increase.
This exercise might be done in every school district across Oregon with similar results. Even though these numbers might be shocking at first glance, there are costs associated with running a school district that won't change significantly unless the community is willing to accept changes. La Grande School District patrons experienced one of these changes this year when the district's directors voted to close Riveria Elementary School. Many tears were shed and many memories were dug up as reminders of the value of this school. But the cold hard facts are that by shutting down Riveria, the school district was able to minimize the escalating costs of running the other schools by eliminating a $700,000 annual cost.
THE COST OF RUNNING a school district includes teachers, aides, administrators, secretaries, custodians, cooks, maintenance workers, bus drivers, coaches, building upkeep, heating/cooling, painting, school activities, debt, reserves and numerous other costs. You can't always run a school district for less money just because you have fewer students. La Grande is a perfect example of that. Even though the district leadership has made an effort to reduce staff at every conceivable level over the past 12 years, the cost of running the district continues to go up. It still takes a teacher to teach a class whether you have 12 or 35 students. You still have to run a bus route, even if the bus is only half full. The principle of economy of scale applies whenever you either have fewer or more students to educate.
La Grande is well within the perimeters of educational norms when it spends between 70 and 80 percent of its revenue on wages and benefits. The rest of the money goes to pay for supplies, materials, capital items, dues, fees, insurance, flow-through and maintaining a reserve. If La Grande is typical, then how can we save any money? The answer is consolidating services within school districts and between school districts.
THE EDUCATIONAL CRISIS in Oregon cannot be addressed by raising taxes and spending more money. Polls show Oregonians believe our educational system is in crisis, but they're not willing to pay more taxes. The answer must come from reducing the cost of education. It will mean sacrifices on the part of parents and students. If parents will face the tough question of consolidating school districts, then taxpayers may be willing to come up with more resources.