OEA unhappy with Governor’s budget regarding education and PERS

Last Friday, Governor John Kitzhaber released his recommended Oregon state budget for the next two years. He is proposing to increase spending on K-12 education by about ten percent. That amounts to roughly a half-billion dollars more than is actually being spent during the current two-year budget cycle.

The Governor is also proposing two modest reductions in the runaway costs of the Public Employee Retirement System. I strongly support the Governor’s proposals. In fact, I have independently requested that bills be drafted for pre-session filling that would make both of the changes he has proposed.

A spokesperson for the Oregon teachers union responded to the Governor’s proposals. She emphatically stated that a half billion dollars is not nearly enough to cover the rapidly escalating costs needed to sustain the Oregon K-12 education system.

Further, she said that she believes the Governor’s proposed PERS changes are unconstitutional. Her statement appears to make clear that the Oregon Education Association intends to challenge both of the modest PERS cost reductions in court.

What has happened during the past twenty-years to cause the rapid escalation in the cost of Oregon’s K-12 education?

Three primary cost-drivers are easily identified.

The first is the cost of the taxpayer contributions to the Public Employment Retirement System. That price tag will have increased by $1,900,000,000 ($1.9 billion) in only four years. We can be confident that the enormous cost increase will continue to be required to be paid by Oregon taxpayers, into the foreseeable future, in the absence of significant PERS reform.

To put that huge into perspective, it calculates to about $500 per budget cycle for every man, woman and child that currently live in Oregon. Just the PERS increase alone will cost the average Oregon family of four more than one thousand dollars per year. About half of that immense cost-increase is paid by Oregon taxpayers to compensate school and education service districts employees’ retirement benefits.

A second major cost-driver is the significant increase in the number of public school employees. Oregon K-12 public school enrollment rose about fifteen percent during the eighteen years between 1992 and 2009. During that same time period, the number of full time K-12 teachers increased about thirteen percent. Therefore, the student to teacher ratio has remained nearly the same.

However, the number of administrators, and other non-teaching staff, grew by forty-seven percent in Oregon between 1992 and 2009! The rate of growth of full-time, non-teacher, employees was more than three times as fast as the rate of student growth. Oregon school district budgets are being eaten alive by the cost of salary, health insurance and PERS retirement benefits for these non-teacher additions to the K-12 workforce.

In my opinion, the rapid growth in the number of public employees is a consistent feature of collective bargaining by public employee unions.

Job descriptions and classifications are created at the bargaining table that limits the tasks that each employee is permitted to perform and how many hours they are allowed to work to perform those tasks. Employees must generally be promoted to another classification, usually with higher compensation, whenever they are expected to perform a task that is not included in the job description for their pay grade. In this way, the unions force school administrations to choose between either hiring more employees, paying their current employees higher wages to perform more tasks, or leaving the jobs undone.

Oregon’s current rate of funding per student is a little more than the national average compared to the other states, according to the U.S. Department of Education. It seems obvious that Oregon’s failure to achieve smaller class sizes is the result of choices to hire more support staff rather than hiring more teachers.

The third major cost driver is the restricted amount of time that school employees are actually required to work. Teachers in one local school district are only required to be at their school workplace 187 days per year. Worse, the teachers do not teach students in the classroom on twenty of those days.

In that district, a full time teacher is actually only required to teach kids in the classroom a total of 167 days a year. That is only thirty three and one half weeks of annual classroom student contact. Meanwhile, the annual cost of salary, health insurance and retirement benefits continue for all of the school districts’ employees.

One might ask what all of these other school employees are doing during the nearly four and one half months each year when no kids are attending school.

A recent study by the United States Department of Education determined the ranking among the states for high-school graduation rates. In 2011, Oregon’s sixty eight percent graduation rate was the fourth-worst rate in the entire nation. In fact, Oregon was rated dead last for its rate of graduation among all ethnic groups, including whites. Statewide averages for student performance in mathematics and English have remained virtually static for more than a decade.

In my opinion, better management of our schools is much more important than better funding. Oregon can, and must, do a better job of managing it K-12 public education enterprise.

By Senator Doug Whitsett






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