As a current member of the board of the Dallas School District, I read Mr. Blackwood's "Leadership Crisis" letter with great interest.
Mr. Blackwood argues that the current school board appears to be suffering in silence with the "funding crisis." Mr. Blackwood implies that the school board members would rather make cuts than by finding money. His grand strategy to cure the funding problem is to have public forums and then to work together. Money then will simply appear.
This approach reflects a na‹ve and simplistic approach to the financial problems that face the district and indeed all school districts in the past five years.
Mr. Blackwood also implies that the board has been "suffering in silence" through the painful revenue shortfalls of the past years. I wonder where Mr. Blackwood has been.
In the past five years, the Dallas School District has been faced with substantial reductions in revenue from the State. The annual revenue has decreased as much as $1,800,000 in one school year. If my memory is correct, the District is actually receiving the same revenue per student from the state as it received in the 2000-2001 school year.
The district has worked hard to maintain a carryover fund balance for future shortfalls, but no "rainy day fund" can handle these immense shortfalls. Layoffs of teachers and staff have only been as a last resort and made only after painful deliberation and consultation with the unions.
Because of the Legislature-mandated PERS, the district has no control over the largest increasing expense in the budget. As a result of the PERS shortfall debacle, created solely by the Legislature, the PERS "tax" imposed on the school district has increased to over 18 percent of employee salaries in the current year and is projected go as high as 21.5 percent in the 2006-2007 year.
This means that on an annual salary payroll of approximately $11,000,000 in base salaries that the district will have to pay approximately $2,365,000 in PERS premiums. This is over and above, payroll taxes and health insurance.
In addition, the district, as all other public bodies, has an unfunded liability of over $15,000,000 to cover future PERS benefits, thanks to the Legislature's excessive generosity.
In last year's legislative session PERS reforms were made that would have saved the district approximately $450,000 to $600,000 per year. Those reforms were struck down by the Oregon Supreme Court in February.
Proactively anticipating that these reforms may not be upheld, the board reserved funds to soften the cash flow burden in the current year.
In November, 2004, in anticipation of future shortfalls, the board aggressively elected to proceed with a bond levy to raise approximately $500,000 per year for the next four years.
The money was earmarked to maintaining current teacher levels during this time period. A community-wide effort was undertaken under the leadership of Lu Ann Meyer, CPA, and former board member Rodney Buchanan. I was at meetings with more than 100 people involved. Yellow "Kids First" signs were up at every corner in town.
My wife and I, as did many others, spoke to people, the old-fashioned way, by meeting them in front of Blockbuster and Safeway. Despite this effort by many, the measure still fell short by six percentage points.
As an example of many outreach efforts, the board just commissioned a community-wide forum on athletics in the district.
Throughout the funding crisis that we have endured this past five years, the board has worked closely with the administration, teachers and classified staff to determine the best way to allocate limited funds to the needs of the students. The Budget Committee reviews and makes recommendations to the Board regarding spending. These members have donated many hours for the thankless task of reviewing the numbers.
The administration, and particularly Kathy Hammer and her staff, have worked hundreds of hours to provide the board with excellent information and alternatives.
The success of this effort is evidenced by the simple fact that the district has been able to avoid additional cuts in staff and in the school days for the school year for the past three years.
Mr. Blackwood implies that the board members spend little time in this job and by implication, if they were more dedicated, the district would not have problems. Hardly a day goes by that I am not working on issues that are related to the district.
Mr. Blackwood implies that if there was a community forum then all the problems could be solved. There is a community forum every two weeks, on the second and fourth Monday of each month. It's called the school board meeting. Every meeting is open to members of the public so they can learn what is happening in the district and speak their minds.
Dallas School District