Kids should not be victims of cuts

The news that Sweet Home School District #55 may have to cut $1.1 million from its budget means more tough times for the local community.

The cuts are the result of Gov. Ted Kulongoski’s proposed 9 percent budget cut across the board in state spending to bridge a $577 million budget gap. State Republicans want to call a special legislative session to address the problem, but there’s no sign that will happen since they’re outnumbered. So it’s likely that 9 percent will be the target.

Sweet Home Schools Supt. Larry Horton, whose administration’s general approach to its budget has been conservative and has already saved us from some of the woes that other districts have been experiencing since the economy took a dive, offered some recommendations Monday at a special meeting of the School Board.

The list of options can be found in the article beginning on page 1, so we won’t repeat it here. It includes first-priority cuts or adjustments such as transfers within the existing budget, a 2 percent cut in PERS contributions ($200,000), cutbacks in supplies and transportation ($30,000-plus) and no new textbook purchases ($60,000).

Then things get tougher. Suggested second-tier cuts (total: $385,000) include closing the pool, which would save $100,000, administrators say.

That one has already raised the hackles of many residents, a couple dozen of whom showed up Monday at the School Board’s special budget meeting to weigh in on the issue.

We tend to agree on the pool, though we’re not thrilled with the suggestion of creating a new tax district to pay for it. But pools cost money and it has to come from somewhere. More on that in a moment.

The bottom line is there are a number of items on the list of proposed reductions that we believe should be avoided at all costs.

One is cutting payments to retirement liabilities €“ a horrible idea. Our early retirement situation is a microcosm of the PERS problem, and if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know this is a major problem on the state level and one of the reason why we’re experiencing this crunch.

We have $2 to $3 million saved for early retirement with a liability of nearly $30 million. This problem isn’t going away soon, especially with the mentality that we can tax ourselves into prosperity (four tax increases on Sweet Home residents approved by voters this year).

Same with long-term maintenance. These are easy areas to hit, but they are critical and should be left intact as much as possible.

Inevitably, discussion of what to trim from the budget is going to cost somebody €“ district personnel, parents and residents €“ and district children.

In the end, local children are the ones that will take the biggets hit and that’s what the School Board and local voters need to keep in the forefront of their minds as this plays out.

The district has been battling to keep youngsters in school and to get them to think past the present €“ to consider college as an option, for instance, even if they are the only members of their families who have ever done so.

It seems to be working. There’s been high interest in GEAR-Up and ASPIRE, the programs at the junior high and high school that focus kids’ attention on the possibility of attending college. A perusal of The New Era’s special graduation section in today’s paper shows that 122 of the 149 Sweet Home High School graduates this year are planning to attend some sort of post-high school education, most of them at Linn-Benton Community College. That’s a lot higher percentage than in some previous years.

There are more reasons now for students not interested in college to stay in school. Horton and the School Board have tried to provide vocational opportunities for students in the form of multiple shop classes and the Forestry Club. Music is on the upswing, with both the band and the choir programs in good hands of young teachers who are making a difference and building momentum.

Sports have done very well over the last year, thanks to some dedicated coaches at the high school and junior high levels who aren’t satisfied with simply going through the motions, who teach and model the kind of behavior we want our kids to learn.

As they contemplate how to save money, district leaders and staff need to remember that keeping kids in school €“ and learning €“ is the main priority here.

The programs mentioned above are reasons why kids stay in school. Youngsters who get little or no support at home can get it from coaches and teachers who go the extra mile for them at school. They get it by engaging in activities in which they are interested, and that go beyond the three R’s in getting them ready for the real world. Cuts in areas that keep kids in school should be at the bottom of the priority list.

Getting back to the numbers, cutting new textbook purchases is a possibility. Textbooks are high-priced and the information in them often changes very little from year to year. Make them last. Get out the duct tape and tell the kids to be careful.

Closing the pool and eliminating the Student Resource Officer are really bad ideas.

Granted, not everybody uses the pool, but it is a valuable resource, particularly in an area blessed with a lot of water recreation. We know there are kids who in school and doing well partly because of the activities they engage in there.

The SRO’s presence has made a difference in our schools, teachers and those close to the situation say. It’s good to have a police officer whom kids can get to know on a (positive) personal level and who can keep tabs on truancy and other problems.

We know the SRO adds stability and is pretty quick to response to problems on all the campuses, particularly the high school and junior high.

Granted, there are still problems with loitering and other activities off campus, but even those are diminished from a few years ago. And fighting at the high school has been drastically reduced. The community needs an SRO

Cutting elementary P.E. is another bad idea, because the time to teach children to exercise and take care of themselves is when they’re young, not when they’ve already developed bad habits.

So here we are, checking off the items we can’t possibly cut. How do we save money?

The school district’s largest expense, by far, is personnel. Certainly staff reductions are in order to be commensurate with declining revenue. But no one really wants to eliminate staff positions.

Without going over the entire list point-by-point, we believe the solution to save the most money is to cut school days. If the state is not going to pay for our schools to run the number of days it expects them to, then they shouldn’t run.

Looking at it practically, if everyone in the district takes a day off without pay (as many other local residents who still have jobs are doing), we save $65,000. If everyone in the district took two days off a month €“ one Friday or Monday every other week (one day each in December and March and none in June), that would save the district 16 days €“ $1,040,000.

We’re not necessarily advocating something that extreme.

Cutting school days would cost the teachers and staff salary, but it would be effective and it might be more palatable than wage freezes, which is another option.

One big reason we’re in this pickle is because more than 10 percent of our population isn’t working right now. Outside the public sector, wage freezes €“ even decreases and massive layoffs €“ have been standard for a couple of years and district employees and union leaders would do well to remember that.

The district cannot continue as though it expects revenue streams to mystically appear. These are tough times and tough times require everybody to step up to help our children.

The district must respond, but its response should be tempered by an awareness that the pain involved should not be focused primarily on any particular group €“ particular our children.