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Capital Chatter: Local school control vs. state accountability

Legislators question whether state education department holds sway over districts.

Five minutes into listening to state schools chief Colt Gill, Sen. Betsy Johnson was already pressing for specifics.

"You've mentioned the word 'transparency' about 10 times since I've come into the room. And my real question is how transparent are you going to be in dealing with these issues? To my way of thinking, these are very serious audit findings and not in a positive way," said Johnson, D-Scappoose.

She co-chairs the Legislature's Joint Committee on Legislative Audits, which was discussing the State Audits Division report on the Oregon Department of Education and Portland Public Schools.

Local control vs. state accountability was a constant topic during this week's meeting. Johnson keyed in on whether the Department of Education truly holds Oregon's 197 school districts accountable, especially what lies ahead with the Legislature having just approved $2 billion in extra funding for schools.

The department handles about 80 grant programs and oversees districts ranging in size from tens of thousands of students to fewer than 10 students.

Johnson urged Gill to act quickly if districts are not performing well instead of worrying about hurting their feelings.

"Part of the accountability is swift corrective action," she said. "When it isn't working, change course."

Johnson was not alone in challenging both the state agency and Portland schools to do better.

"Something really does need to change," said Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, who asked why Portland had the highest operating cost per student instead of achieving economies of scale.

Rita Moore, who chairs the Portland School Board, acknowledged the district's shortcomings. She said the district had been underfunded for almost 30 years. She vowed that the district and its relatively new leadership were making the necessary improvements.

"I hope we have all learned from this audit," Moore said. "We do have a plan and we need to stick with it."

Oregon's propensity for "flavor of the month" educational policies was another recurring theme. Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Beaverton, challenged Moore and the Portland School Board to give their plan time to mature — as Woodburn and other now-successful school districts did — instead of switching to the latest great idea.

By the way, Rep. Cheri Helt, R-Bend, has made a similar point in the Joint Committee on Student Success. Helt served on the Bend-La Pine School Board and said that district's success stemmed from agreeing on a plan and sticking with it despite changes in leadership.

Superintendents as financial leaders: Gill said top district administrators often have little financial background. As building principals, they might have financial authority over little more than the school's copy machine costs. As superintendents, they may be responsible for millions of dollars.

Johnson likened that to turning a business over to someone with no financial experience. She advocated for financial skills being required for licensure as a superintendent.

Rep. Diego Hernandez, D-Portland, noted that districts generally have a finance official who is the real expert on the money. Still, he said, it was disheartening as a school board member to realize the board knew more about the budget than the superintendent.

A driver license detour: Friday is the deadline for most legislative committees to finish acting on bills. On Wednesday, the Joint Committee on Transportation voted along party lines to ship House Bill 2015 to the still-active Joint Committee on Ways and Means.

The bill would allow undocumented Oregonians to obtain driver licenses, although not the kind accepted as valid ID for boarding aircraft or entering federal buildings.

Committee co-chair Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, said the committee ran out of time to deal with the bill.

HB 2015 essentially would undue a ballot measure that blocked the state from issuing such driver licenses.

Several committee members — including Republican Reps. Ron Noble of Carlton, Rick Lewis of Silverton and Lynn Findley of Vale — said they regretted not being allowed discuss the bill, including whether to amend it and send it to voters next year.

To kick or not: Democrats have a supermajority but would need a few Republican votes to divert all or part of next year's "kicker" tax refund for other uses.

In their constituent newsletters this week, two Democrats had opposite reactions.

Rep. Brad Witt of Clatskanie: "It's my opinion that until there is a public vote to change the kicker law, the money should be returned to the taxpayers, but I would like to hear from you on this matter. Your input will help me make the best decision reflecting the wishes of House District 31 constituents."

Rep. Pam Marsh of Ashland: "I believe that one-time use of some of the kicker to address otherwise intractable statewide issues — like PERS — should be considered. However, that would require broad, bipartisan agreement among legislators."

Quote of the day: This comes from Sen. Johnson, one of the wittiest people in the Oregon Capitol.

"I think state agencies lose track of the fact that not every Oregonian gets up in the morning and says, 'God, I think I'll turn to a state website to find out what's going on in the world.'"

Dick Hughes, who writes the weekly Capital Chatter column, has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.com, Facebook.com/Hughesisms, YouTube.com/DickHughes or Twitter.com/DickHughes.