Buoyed by a projected $1.4 million increase in state funding, the La Grande School District’s budget looks solid.

The school district’s budget committee was presented with a proposed 2019-20 budget of more than $25 million Wednesday, up 1.5 percent from the present year’s budget. The budget will allow the school district to maintain all of its programs and staff.

The school district’s budget is built on the assumption that the Legislature will approve a $9 billion education budget for the 2019-21 biennium. This is up $800 million from the $8.2 education budget the Legislature approved two years ago for the current biennium. The projected funding increase is a main reason why the La Grande School District is set to receive $1.4 million in additional revenue for 2019-20, said Chris Panike, the La Grande School District’s business manager.

Joe Justice, chair of the La Grande School Board, said the budget is indicative of the solid position the school district is in.

“I feel the school district is in a good place financially,” he said.

La Grande School District Superintendent George Mendoza also credits careful spending in the past with boosting its economic situation.

“The La Grande School District has a long history of fiscally conservative budgeting and finds itself in a better position financially than many other districts across the state,” Mendoza wrote in his budget message.

The budget would cover a $573,000 increase in what the school district will have to pay into the Personal Employee Retirement System in 2019-20. This will raise the school district’s total PERS expenses in 2019-20 to $1.773 million. La Grande and all school districts in Oregon are facing steep increases in what they must pay into PERS.

The budget would also pay for $529,847 in negotiated wage increases for teachers and classified staff such as cooks, custodians and secretaries. The school district’s classified staff union negotiated the wage increases. The classified staff employees recently approved the wage increases, which bargaining teams for both parties had approved, and the school board will soon hold a vote to officially ratify the new contract.

The budget also calls for a physical education teacher to be added at Central Elementary School. The PE position would replace that of a certified librarian position at Central, an opening created by a resignation. Presently the La Grande School District has physical education teachers at its high school and middle school but none at its three grade schools.

Mendoza said he hopes to eventually add PE teachers at both Greenwood and Island elementary schools. Justice shares this sentiment.

“It is our hope to ultimately have PE teachers at all of our grade schools,” Justice said.

Currently, elementary school counselors teach grade school PE in the district. Adding the teachers would allow counselors to spend more time with high-needs students and others in need of one-on-one attention. It would also make it easier for the district to meet state requirements that call for school districts to increase the amount of time students receive instruction from certified PE teachers, Panike said.

Several members of the budget committee, including Joel Goldstein, urged the school board to hire PE teachers for Greenwood and Island City as early as this year because of the need to free up counselors. Goldstein said this is critical because the number of students in the school district with behavior problems is increasing.

Mendoza said that PE teachers for Greenwood and Island City could easily be hired once House Bill 3427, the Student Success Act, takes effect. HB 3427 would raise an additional $1 billion a year for schools via a tax of businesses and corporations. The Student Success Act could be repealed though, should an initiative petition seeking to overturn it be placed on an election ballot and be approved by voters. Mendoza said he doubts voters would reject the measure.

“I don’t think people will vote down a measure that would do so much good for our schools,” he said.

See complete story in Friday's Observer