The Philomath School Board opted to delay final votes on the 2023-24 fiscal year budget and proposed staff cuts. (File photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

The Philomath School Board delayed votes on adopting the 2023-24 fiscal year budget and moving forward with staff cuts following an emotion-filled meeting that included 40 minutes of budget-related comments from teachers in the district.

The board’s meeting room, jam-packed with a standing-room only crowd of roughly 50 educators — many wearing red shirts as a symbol of unity — applauded when the board unanimously approved a motion to table the budget vote and related resolutions.

More news out of the June 15 Philomath School Board meeting will be published in the coming days, including teachers concerned about feeling safe in their jobs, a new student representative on the board sworn in and more.

Just prior to the vote, School Board member Christopher McMorran addressed those in the audience.

“I don’t want to have this tabling be promising of something we might not be able to deliver on,” McMorran said. “We were given a certain amount of money by our taxpayers and that’s all we get. I want to preface this decision by saying that — it’s up to us what we do with that pie but it’s not up to us how big of a pie it is.”

The biggest slice of the pie is in the hands of the State Legislature, which brightened moods earlier in the day when a voting quorum was reached for the first time in several weeks. The State School Fund is the main source of funding for educating the state’s 550,000 K-12 students and the most-recent proposed amount stands at $10.2 billion. The fund is split over two years and assigned to the state’s 197 districts based on enrollment.

“It’ll be $10.2 (billion) — it’s just a matter of when,” said McMorran, who works as a legislative staffer. 

The board plans to meet again at 6 p.m. Friday, June 23. A budget must be approved by the end of June.

In the meantime, the school district and the Philomath Education Association plan to continue negotiations at a bargaining session on June 21.

“We seek a contract that meets the needs of our members economically and legally,” incoming PEA co-president David Dunham told the board. “The members of the PEA are unified in our determination to reach a fair and equitable settlement.”

Superintendent of Schools Susan Halliday said she hopes recent developments at the state level will lead to more solid decisions.

“We have some language things that we need to decide on and the big topic is obviously salary and insurance and where we need to land,” Halliday said. “It has been a rollercoaster ride being able to make a determination of how much money we will get. … It’s nice to hear people (legislators) came back today and started doing some voting so that hopefully we’ll get some decisions made.”

Thirteen individuals — including four that spoke as a group — provided perspectives on the budget with most urging that an 8% cost-of-living adjustment be approved out of those district-union negotiations. Many had asked the board to hold off on taking a vote on the proposed budget to allow for bargaining flexibility. 

The teachers that spoke had positive views about working in the school district but also got personal at times with specific examples of financial struggles. The need for a summer job, avoiding family trips and vacations, medical bills, child care, rent and in general the steep inflation that has been seen were all detailed. One teacher shared how he drives for DoorDash to bring in extra money to his family household.

Several educators provided comments during Thursday night’s School Board meeting about the budget, staff cutbacks and a cost-of-living adjustment that is part of current district-union negotiations. Here is a sampling of those comments:
• Nick Traini, Philomath High School teacher — “I encourage the board to make decisions about our contract that will ensure teachers and staff are a priority.”
• Charlene Opheim, Clemens Primary School teacher and PEA vice president — “Teaching can be a thankless, emotionally-draining and exhausting career but the students need us. We want you to do what is right, responsible and honorable, and make a budget that finally compensates the amazing work these teachers do.”
• Alice Oaks, CPS teacher — “Please do not pass this proposed budget unless it has the flexibility to provide the salary increases that our educators need and deserve to address the growing impact of inflation.”
•  Mallory Crane, CPS counselor — “Consider the reduction in force not just as a loss of positions — it is a reduction in people who connect with and support our students; it’s a reduction in quality educators; it’s a reduction in support for staff; it’s a reduction in our school communities; and it’s a reduction in morale.”
• Donna Carter, PHS teacher — “The Philomath School District is a great place because of the dedication of our teachers and staff. It’s time to start truly supporting educators and showing that you understand our work.”
• April McKinney, PHS teacher — “Please invest generously in PSD educators and staff so we can earn a living wage while teaching students to also become productive citizens in the community.”
• Hailey Vandewiele, Philomath Elementary, CPS and Blodgett Elementary teacher — “I realize you’re in a tough position and needing to pass the budget soon but I urging you to take the time to make sure this budget leaves room and flexibility to bargain fairly with the teachers’ union when the time comes.”
• Melissa Mulusky, Susan Hobbs, Julie Rain and Alyssa Blackstone, CPS teachers — “What we’re asking you tonight is to only approve this proposed budget if it has the ability to provide flexibility for salary increases that our educators need and the support that our students deserve in the classroom.”
• Keri Gross, CPS teacher — “If you don’t feel confident about what this budget proposal can offer students and staff, please consider not adopting it.”
• Daniel Mock, Philomath Middle School teacher — “Philomath has a reputation outside of this place; I knew about some of those things before I came here and it was one of the reasons I applied quite frankly. You get to be a part of that legacy going forward because the decisions that you make have ripple effects.”

From an official standpoint, the budget hearing goes down in the books as receiving no testimony with the board listening to budget-related comments during the open public comment period.

Jennifer Griffith, district finance director, went through requirements related to any budget revisions the board might consider.

“The appropriations that are set are based on the best evidence that we have for resources and expenditures at this time,” she said. “Changes can be made within those appropriations as we see fit, as the board sees fit.”

Griffith later added, “It’s been a pretty difficult budget session — lots of unknowns, lots of things to work through and I hope that we never have to do it again.”

As board members talked out what to do with the proposed budget, Joe Dealy favored approval and then going back and changing the budget, if needed, before the end of the month. Karen Skinkis said she’d rather table it.

“Clearly, there’s been impassioned people here tonight,” Skinkis said. “I feel like we would be showing much more respect if we went back and looked at this again. It might not change, but at least we’ve heard you, we went back and looked to see what we could do differently. That’s how I will be voting.”

Griffith told the board that if any changes exceed 10% of the total amount in a particular fund, the process would start over with the Budget Committee. If changes amount to less than 10%, the board members could move forward themselves.

Preschool program in jeopardy

Halliday later in the meeting mentioned a bill active in the Legislature that proposes early literacy funding.

“As some of you know in our conversations, we are wrestling with Next Steps preschool,” Halliday said. “It breaks my heart to think about having to cut a preschool because it is a foundation to prepare kids for kindergarten, for first grade, for life, for all kinds of things.”

Halliday said the struggle relates to a lack of funding for preschoolers.

“It’s very hard to talk about the potential for a reduction in force when we’re putting potentially the equivalent of a teacher into maintaining our preschool,” she added.

Halliday said that Strengthening Rural Families indicated that it would have a program this fall.

“It gives us an opportunity to see how that plays out and how that fits,” Halliday said. “It gives us a chance to take a look at the early literacy money and how it might help us support in that way and the prospects of additional funding. It’s not lost on us how important that is and what a critical component that is for students.”

Next Steps Kindergarten Readiness classes are provided free to local families through Kindergarten Partnership Innovation funding from the Linn-Benton-Lincoln Early Learning Hub.

“The amount of money we get for that doesn’t come close to paying for the program and so as a district, we end up putting $60,000 to $100,000 a year in addition to that money,” Halliday said.

Other funding sources believed to be in the picture have not materialized, she said.

“We’re going to keep working on that and we know that’s one of those places, too, that we have to be thoughtful about as we’re talking about our negotiations,” she added.

Reduction in force also on hold

The budget’s shortcomings add up to proposed staff cuts that represent the equivalent of between 12 and 13 full-time positions — specifically 12.80. As of Thursday night, 3.81 FTE remained to be cut with those to impact classified positions.

“All administrative and licensed positions are being addressed through retirements and resignations,” Halliday said in a memo to the board. “Some of the classified reductions — the 3.24 FTE temporary positions as well as 2.0 FTE of current staff — are also being addressed through retirements and resignations. In a final tally, 3.81 FTE will involve the unfortunate reduction of current staff members.”

The board approved a consent agenda that included the retirement of Ann Blythe (high school math) and the resignations of Kim Maness (middle school language arts) and Ryan Loveall (high school custodian). Beyond those individuals, personnel and staff retirements and resignations in various positions were also approved in prior months but it’s unclear exactly how those fit into the possible overall staff reduction picture, if at all.

Board Chair Rick Wells said that with the continuing work to be done on the budget, it made little sense to move forward with the reduction in force.

Halliday said individuals that could be affected were notified in advance but nothing would be finalized until the board takes action.

“What has been a benefit in holding off on the decisions has been that a number of the proposed reductions are coming from retirements, resignations and unfilled positions that we’ve taken out of the budget,” Halliday added.

In the end, the board did not take a vote on the reduction in force issue.

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.