Superintendent Mindy Porter is absolutely right about one aspect of the $200,000 budget shortfall facing the Days Creek School District. Pointing fingers and assigning blame for the fiscal crisis is less helpful than finding a solution and making payroll.
It’s too soon to tell if the school board’s solution will enable the district to meet that goal. Plan A is to chuck the home economics program, lay off a teacher at each of its two schools, combine three grade levels in two places at Tiller Elementary, cease contracted counseling services and sideline a bus route. Plan B, if that isn’t enough, is to consider putting all sixth- and seventh-graders in one school.
Now that plans are made and one of them is in motion, it’s time to figure out what went wrong. That leads us to disagree with another statement Porter made last week to News-Review reporter Carisa Cegavske.
It’s admirable for Porter to refrain from blaming any one person for a debacle she inherited when she took over her post at the beginning of the school year. It’s correct for her to say the budget should have been watched more carefully. However, her characterization of the mistake as resulting from “just a little bit of neglect” couldn’t be more wrong.
There’s a reason a $5 million budget comes up $200,000 short in the middle of the year. We don’t know what it is, because administrators are keeping that information to themselves. Porter admitted that the situation sparked misinformation, rumors and alarm among district residents. She sent letters to parents and guardians of students in Days Creek Charter and Tiller schools in November and in January that confirmed “serious financial concerns.” The letters did not explain the cause of those concerns.
Days Creek School Board Chairwoman Chris Rusch told Cegavske that the basic problem is increased expenses outpaced revenues. She cited the two biggest challenges as bigger payments needed for the Public Employees Retirement System and higher gas prices.
It’s true that Oregon school districts, particularly those in rural areas, are struggling with inadequate revenues and that PERS is a challenge for many of them. But this should come as no midyear surprise. Neither is the rising cost of fuel.
When school employees and board members meet to plan budgets for a coming fiscal year, they’re expected to have a handle on what expenses will be. They are not expected to drop teachers in the middle of the year with little notice to find a new job.
Rusch said in her 24 years as a board member, similar budget crises arise every five years or so. That seems a casual dismissal of what surely must be a preventable problem. There’s no need to confine the responsible person in stocks in the public square. But there’s something to the old saying about learning from history so it’s not repeated.
Something reared up and blindsided those responsible for managing district coffers. Administrators either won’t tell taxpayers what went awry or, perhaps worse, they don’t know.
In either case, they’ve earned a failing midyear grade in accountability.