Oregon is consistently ranked among the worst states for school funding. It has shorter school years, more students per class, and lower graduation rates than most places in the country. Experts trace the beginning of the trend to the passage of Measure 5 in 1990.
It largely separated school funding from local property taxes, giving the job to the state. Today, schools must be creative and resourceful. Here's how one district copes with persistent tightening.
The Crow Applegate Lorane community takes pride in its music program, which they are quick to point out was never cut through the economic downturn. C-A-L is a two-school district southwest of Eugene. It's an agricultural region of farms and vineyards. About 260 kids attend, or around 20 per grade.
Aaron Brown is the Superintendent as well as the elementary school principal. He's worked in other districts as well:
Brown: “Out of my 29 years I would probably say 25 of those years we've been cutting.”
Brown mentions Measure 5, and the No Child Left Behind Act, which he thinks caused an overemphasis on math and reading. It's not been easy, but Crow Applegate Lorane kept its band program and has since added many class options, from Spanish and French to welding and survival skills. Doug Perry is on the school board:
Perry: “I think we have 24 electives slated next year.”
Several factors allow them to provide broad choice while maintaining strong academics. Foremost is leadership with a clear goal in mind. Superintendent Brown thinks a wide range of programs is more likely to inspire and graduate a greater number of kids.
Brown: “I have to credit my board with that because they have that vision too. They have made the decisions to keep many of the arts and the other extra curricular activities in place and that's been, I think, a conscious choice.”
During an arts fundraiser at Crow High School, I ask board member Perry whether he's seen the schools' needs change in the six years he's been involved:
Perry: “Oh absolutely. Funding's a huge issue, especially for a small rural school. Where a shortfall of five or 10 or 20 thousand dollars can be made up rather quickly in a larger district, it means something to us. It means a class. It means supplies. It could mean a staff person.”
He says that's why events like this Booster Club night are important. Brown also credits the volunteers in the club, which traditionally raises funds for things including sports and field trips. Lately, he admits, they help buy pencils and paper:
Brown: “Some more of the basic needs rather than what the additionals were in the past, back in the 70s and 80's where they really provided above and beyond. Now they're just helping to keep us going.”
Diana Lassen helped organize the benefit. I find her at the Hors d'oeuvre table:
Lassen: “I grew up in a time where we had it good. The timber industry was thriving and schools were feeling great. It's not that way any more, so we have to do more as a community to support some of these things that are easy to cut -- music and band and P.E.”
She says the goal for tonight is new theater curtains. They cost around $7,000 dollars. Lassen's here even though her son graduated. She no longer has a direct connection to the school. That's true of several people here, including grandparents and staff from out of town. Superintendent Brown says the community recently stepped up in another way:
Brown: “We did just pass a bond so we're really excited about that. So we're gong to see some new remodeling of the facilities and new additions such as the STEM wing.”
The four million dollar measure passed last fall will be matched by state funds. It'll pay for new doors and main offices for safety and accessibility, as well as the science, tech and math rooms at the middle and high school.
Nationally, several mega-donations to public schools have made the news. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation recently gave over $50 million dollars to Battle Creek, Michigan schools. Although not on the same scale, small districts do benefit from big one-time gifts:
Brown: “A few years ago in our music department we had equipment that was not in good shape and we had a large number of students come out. Well we had some pretty large donations come in that helped our music instructor be able to repair those.”
Brown says they also rely on grants. Because they can't afford to pay staff to apply for them, grants sometimes happen through Lane ESD. With the physics teacher, Crow arts teacher Tina Dworakowski secured funds for a STEAM project. That's STEM plus arts. It's centered around skateboards:
Dworakowski: “We got a grant from Oregon Country Fair to buy the wheels and trucks, and they're going to come out and show us how to put on grip tape. And we made all these old school molds, and so then we're gonna go skate on them!”
Dworakowski is a dynamo of energy and ideas. She praises a recent graduate who came back to teach a computer illustration program.
Dworakowski: “She found out that is what she loved to do, which was graphic design, right here in high school.”
She also teaches ceramics and photography and plans to initiate a tiny wood-shop project. The idea is to build a portable shop, and have Crow students teach woodworking skills to disadvantaged youth in the Eugene area.
The main goal for the night was the $7,000 curtains. The total take was $3,300 dollars. Linda Lay, the booster club president, says they're still debating how to raise more money.
There's a limit to how far schools can stretch their dwindling funding. Crow Applegate Lorane loses students each year, meaning another annual budget cut from the state. For the time being, the combination of energetic individuals, leaders with a vision, and creative fundraising keeps this school district going.
This report is part of a series on the future of public education, funded by the Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics at the University of Oregon.