UNION COUNTY — The news was not surprising. Still, it sparked a collective sigh of relief among Union County school district leaders earlier this week.
The state Legislature, during its one-day special session on Monday, Aug. 10, voted to replace all of the approximately $400 million in funding the state lost from its budget for public schools this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Legislature drew money out of state reserve funds to backfill the money needed for full funding.
This means Oregon’s public school districts now know they will end up receiving all of the $9 billion the Legislature voted last summer to provide schools in the 2019-21 biennium.
It had been rumored for weeks that the Legislature would do this, but educators still remained anxious.
“Nothing is certain in these uncertain times, at least in my mind. That is why this news is exciting,” said Union School District Superintendent Carter Wells.
Wells said being fully funded will help his school district maintain all of its programs and staff in 2020-21 and deal with added expenses the district is encountering due to COVID-19, including the purchase of personal protective equipment.
La Grande School District Superintendent George Mendoza also was buoyed by the Legislature’s decision to provide full funding.
“It is a relief, and I am grateful,” he said.
Mendoza said the full funding also will help the school district prepare for the next four years after 2020-21, which he said could be more challenging financially because of long-term impacts of the pandemic. He said the school district will have to be careful to preserve its resources for the difficult times ahead.
“We will have to be good stewards,” Mendoza said.
Cove School District Superintendent Earl Pettit said he believes the decision to provide the backfill funding for Oregon’s schools was essentially agreed upon by legislators quite a bit earlier. He said this is why the special session was one of the shortest on record.
Pettit said getting full funding was a big boost but noted that the Cove School District’s financial situation is solid enough to have absorbed a shortfall without dire consequences.
“We would not have been in bad shape,” he said.
The superintendent credits Cove’s solid financial position to efficient operations and conservative spending.
Imbler School District Superintendent Angie Lakey-Campbell said she feels much better now than she did in the spring when businesses were being shut down everywhere in response to COVID-19. She feared that a big fiscal blow awaited Oregon’s school districts as a result in 2020-21.
“This is a huge relief,” Lakey-Campbell said.
Full funding will not only help her school district maintain all of its staff and programs, the Imbler superintendent said, but also will assist with covering costs incurred by meeting the requirements of social distancing.
“This coronavirus business is not inexpensive,” she noted.
North Powder School District Superintendent Lance Dixon said the funding also will help his school district, including purchasing additional distance learning equipment. If on-site instruction is not possible, teaching will be conducted online, and devices are needed to “do it right,” he said.
Dixon said the school district passed a very conservative budget in the spring, recognizing the uncertainties of its future financial situation in the wake of COVID-19. Fortunately the district’s 2020-21 budget has turned out to be better than expected.
“We will receive more money than we anticipated,” he said.
Mark Mulvihill, superintendent of the InterMountain Education Service District, which Union County’s public schools are a part of, praised the Legislature for its effort to provide full funding to school districts.
“The Legislature did an exceptional job of preserving education funding,” Mulvihill said.
He noted that the outlook for the 2021-23 biennium does not look promising in terms of education funding. Mulvihill said he hopes the state will receive more federal stimulus funding that would help it preserve its reserve funds to support future education across the state.