Time For Belt-Tightening to Get Creative

As Eugene wrestles with a looming city budget shortfall of $3 million, Eugene’s 4J School District is anticipating a deficit approaching $5 million. Each has a trick that the other could use. And no, this column has nothing to do with Civic Stadium.

Oregon schools have been dealing with funding shortfalls for decades now, ever since equalization formulas required funding to pass through Salem first. This extra step reduced the sense of ownership that a neighborhood builds around a school and its performance. The state legislature’s approach to budget-cutting has been predictably ham-handed, which is to say schools have been treated like raw meat: “If you can’t afford what you want to buy, just buy less of it.”

Oregon shortened its mandated school year, but did not reduce expectations on teachers or their students. All sides will debate about the long-term effects of the cuts, but none of the arguments have moved Oregonians to increase their state taxes. School boards had no choice but to cut costs. Labor expenses make up the largest portion of any school’s operating expenses.

The city’s budget committee could not look for a large chunk of savings from further reducing the city’s workforce. The city has used attrition to trim its staffing levels for several years. Only the most important job openings have been filled.

The schools did the same thing, beginning 20 years ago. They eliminated art and music classes because they were deemed “non-essential.” Physical education, foreign languages, and other “extras” were trimmed back. They stopped hiring new teachers and packed more students into every classroom.

That strategy worked only for a while. Eventually, they were forced to reduce instruction hours — shorter school days and fewer of them. Oregon’s requirements got so low that a high school senior today in Texas will have spent the equivalent of two extra years in class over an Oregon graduate.

Again, you can debate the consequences, but not the history of those choices.

With no new funding sources on the horizon, the city can learn from the schools’ experience. They can begin planning now to reduce every full-time employee from 40 hours a week to 36. If you can’t afford what you’re getting, buy less of it.

The public cannot be shielded from the consequences of budget cuts much longer. In the same way working parents have had to make childcare arrangements on cost-saving furlough days, Eugene residents will have to adjust to not receiving non-urgent city services a few hours every week.

Whether the city shuttered itself on Friday afternoons, or Wednesday mornings, or for an hour each day can be left for employee unions or the public to decide. Once there’s agreement that 40 hours is too much government for a week, future budget committees will have more options.

Branch libraries are now deemed “non-essential” — the same as music teachers were in our schools. It’s the only city service cut that is identical in all five scenarios being contemplated by the budget committee.

Here’s where the schools can learn from the city. When it came time to shut off the heat and leave city hall, the city negotiated with the county to share a council chamber. The city paid for some improvements to Harris Hall, and the Eugene City Council was spared the indignity of meeting around card tables in a temporary space. This co-location strategy benefited both sides.

Enrollment numbers at most of Eugene’s neighborhood schools have gone down in recent years. That trend, along with larger classes, has resulted in surplus brick and mortar at many of our schools.

Begin plans now to co-locate public library branch sites in every neighborhood school. Each school and neighborhood can determine what configuration will work best, but each should include Internet access, a few books and other reading material, comfortable seating. Local patrons will use the sites to pick up and drop off materials ordered from downtown.

Let’s reconnect our schools with their neighbors, model lifelong learning for students, and reassure Eugene’s citizens — especially those in Sheldon and Bethel areas — that public agencies can team up to reduce costs.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs