The agenda for the Thursday night meeting of the Corvallis School Board includes this pleasant topic: How should the district plan for how to spend its share of the extra money coming its way from the Student Success Act?
As you might recall, the Student Success Act, which was passed by this year’s legislative session, establishes a corporate activity tax on certain Oregon businesses and funnels the money, estimated to be about $1 billion a year, into the state’s K-12 public schools.
The act dedicates about half of its funding to a new Student Investment Account; funds from the account will be distributed through noncompetitive grants to the state’s school districts and eligible charter schools. The Corvallis School District is expected to receive about $5 million annually beginning in the 2020-21 school year from the Student Investment Account, according to information prepared for Thursday’s board meeting.
Similar discussions are going to be occurring at school districts throughout the state. It should make for a nice change of pace from the typical budget discussions at school districts (or, for that matter, at most any governmental unit in Oregon). Those discussions in recent years have tended to focus on the best ways to cut budgets, or which services can be eliminated to save money. (These discussions often also include proposals about how governments can raise more revenue; it’s worth remembering that this money for schools comes from a tax which will be paid, to the largest possible extent, by the customers of those businesses subject to the tax. More on this point later.)
Regardless, it will be nice for board members and district officials to sit around a table and brainstorm ways to spend a few additional dollars.
But the conversation shouldn’t end there.
In fact, House Bill 3427, the official name for the Student Success Act, includes requirements that districts solicit community comment on their plans. That sort of comment, in theory, could be handled by offering a few moments near the end of a board meeting for weary and confused members of the public to approach the board and mutter a few words about a plan that’s choked in impenetrable educational jargon.
But that’s not what legislators intended — and it’s not how smart school districts will approach this process. The Corvallis School District, for example, hopes to include community forums, meetings with stakeholder groups, online surveys and something called “feedback loops,” a phrase which veers perilously close to educational jargon.
Despite the feedback loops, this sounds like a good start. But the effort should go beyond that — school officials have an opportunity here to go beyond the usual suspects, those loyal citizens who make a point of attending as many meetings as they can. This is an opportunity to take this good news into the broader community and get a better sense of what those citizens expect from their schools. Chances seem pretty good that many of those expectations will fall into one of the broad categories identified in the act: reducing class size, providing a well-rounded education, adding instructional time and addressing health and safety concerns.
And citizens who become engaged in the process should feel free to ask questions, in particular these ones: What specific educational needs in the district will the money address? And, just as important, how will the district measure progress toward those goals — and how will district officials provide progress reports?
After all, even though the tax that funds these educational programs will be levied on businesses, it’s the customers of those businesses that likely will get stuck with most of the tab. (Most taxpayers do get an 0.25 percentage point personal income tax to compensate, but still.) Those taxpayers deserve to have a say on where their money will be spent — and whether that investment is making a difference in their community’s schools.