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School districts in Oregon's fire-ravaged communities hope lawmakers pass bill to protect funding

Many people had to leave their homes during the devastating fires in 2020. Some kids also had to leave school districts. Fewer students enrolled means fewer dollars.

MILL CITY, Ore. — School districts in communities that were ravaged by last year’s fires in Oregon are finding themselves in an uncomfortable spot financially. Legislation that would have protected school funding didn’t pass.

In Oregon, each student in a school district brings a certain amount of money.

When fires tore through the state in September 2020, it forced people out of their homes and in some cases out of their school districts.

Todd Miller is the superintendent of the Santiam Canyon School District. He said due to the fire, his district lost 72 students, which equates to 12% of the student body. He and his superintendent colleagues across the state in the McKenzie and Phoenix-Talent school districts oversee schools in communities still recovering from last year's fires.

“Before the fire […] membership was about 225 students and this fall we're currently at about 170 students,” said Lane Tompkins, McKenzie School District superintendent.

“That’s not huge, but you know for us, that’s a fairly substantial loss and a pretty substantial loss to our upcoming operating budget,” he said.

RELATED: Some firefighters facing mental health challenges after Oregon's devastating 2020 wildfires

In Southern Oregon, Brent Barry is the superintendent for the Phoenix-Talent School District.

“We lost 2,400 homes. Immediately 700 of our students became homeless overnight,” Barry said.

He said currently, Phoenix-Talent Schools is down 350 students. Fewer students mean less money, to the tune of over $3 million.

That’s why they say House Bill 2630, legislation known as the “enrollment stability bill,” is so important. It would allow school districts in communities dealing with the fallout of 2020's fires to use enrollment numbers from the 2019-2020 school year to get funding. But despite bipartisan support and reassurance it would pass, the superintendents said it never did.

“It ended up just dying in committee and what we were told is there was just miscommunication,” said Miller.

Miller said districts were told to spend as they normally would.

“What we've done is we've pre-spent money that we were told we were going to have. That did not happen.”

In Southern Oregon, Barry’s district adopted a budget with the assurance that funding would come through. But the support he and his colleagues were hoping for isn’t there yet.

“To tell you the truth, I don't think this has ever happened,” Barry said.

Now district leaders in fire-affected areas say they’re dipping into money they have saved up.

RELATED: Thinning forests alone helps reduce wildfire risk, Oregon researchers say

"We saved some additional monies on bussing, electricity, you know some things last year that we didn't spend with the distance learning," said Barry. 

In the McKenzie School District, Tompkins said they're looking at being about $300,000 short.

“So that causes some sleepless nights.”

In Miller’s district, the loss of 12% of its students has meant a hit of $600,000 to the district’s general fund, not to mention the thousands of dollars in grant money the district has also lost due to lower enrollment numbers.

“We budgeted for these programs and we hired these people. We now don't have the funds. So we really need this legislative fix for this year and four years out until we can get our communities rebuilt,” said Miller.

In reality Miller said it may take even longer than that, judging by how slowly recovery has been going. 

He said if the legislation doesn’t pass, it could mean a double whammy for his district and others. Instead of his district being roughly $700,000 in the hole, next year he’ll have to find a way to cut $1.4 million.

“Because I’ve overspent about $700,000 this year and then I got to that $700,000 next year, so it’s a compounding issue for us,” he said.

They have faith lawmakers will pull through. But for now, they’re in limbo and thinking about the future if the bill doesn’t end up passing.

Tompkins said 80 cents of every dollar goes to staffing. If the bill doesn’t pass and districts have to cut teachers and employees because of lack of funding, it won’t be easy to try to hire teachers back.

RELATED: Santiam Canyon communities come together one year after devastating wildfires

“There’s already an educator shortage going on and finding quality staff, you know, is a challenge in any position right now,” said Tompkins.

At the heart of their concerns is that schools are often the hubs for smaller or rural communities. For those communities that have already been struggling, there could be another hit if funding doesn't come through. 

“When you have to cut dollars that usually means cutting people and in a small district, people are programs. So the last thing that we want to do is dropping a teacher and in our districts, means dropping a program,” Miller said.

“I just can't imagine if this doesn't come to fruition in the legislative session […] it'll be a devastating effect on our students, our families, our community, our staff, and you know we're just holding out hope,” said Barry.

“This year we could get through, literally, kind of just barely and then next year, it'd be major, major funding cuts,” he said.

While Tompkins said he and his colleagues are grateful for what state lawmakers have already done to help communities recovering from fires, they hope the state’s emergency board will convene to pass the bill for at least the next year. Then they’re hoping when the next legislative session starts state lawmakers will give their districts the help they need.

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