Turn off the Lights
BrainstormNW - April 2002
lame duck governor had a lot of nerve expecting—no, demanding—that
legislators solve in a pre-election, politically charged special session
what he and his entire administration could not solve in all eight years
in office. It’s been a constant irritant to Kitzhaber that education
budget crises have plagued the state for the last decade and a half (if
not longer), but that doesn’t excuse his last-minute temper tantrum.
Education has never been a priority for the governor, never an area of
great interest. Kitzhaber’s education policy is defined by once-a-budget-cycle
attempts to find and throw more money at the problem.
What problem? Well, that’s part of the problem. Is it finding more
money to plug the once-a-budget-cycle spending growth? Or is the problem
an uncertain education product, with ever-growing budgets, stagnant or
declining results, and salaries and benefits (particularly PERS) that
cannot reasonably be maintained over time.
Is it the product or is it the cost of education in Oregon?
Solutions to these long-term problems and unanswered questions are not
going to be solved in a special session of the legislature. The legislature
is doing its best to plug this hole, this time, to get this budget in
place. To expect massive overhaul of the entire public education system
of the state in one special session—that’s ridiculous.
ABOUT THE PRODUCT
About a decade ago, Vera Katz and John Kitzhaber, both serving as legislators
in Salem, started Oregonians down a path of expenditure experimentation.
They chose for their experiments the two most expensive elements in the
budget, education and health care.
Katz put in place Oregon’s massive education reform plan. The plan
has cost hundreds of millions of dollars in bureaucratic planning, in
implementing new teaching strategies, tests, assessments, in lost teacher
time, etc. The costs to students whose teachers were constantly pulled
out of the classroom for training cannot even be calculated. What few
spotty results there are have been unimpressive, and teachers, parents
and students are fed up. The reform plan is a disaster waiting to be thrown
into the dustbin of heart-in-the-right-place terrible ideas. Katz has
never been forced to answer for the millions of taxpayer dollars wasted
on this effort (let alone the wasted years in education advancement).
Katz promised an education system second to none by the year 2000, and
a workforce prepared for the twenty-first century by the same time. Where
are the results?
Her answer has been that the funding was never adequate to implement her
plan. But the tax revenue available for education funding was predictable
then, as it is predictable now. Why did she implement a plan doomed to
fail for lack of funds? Was she hoping for
At almost the same time, Kitzhaber offered up the Oregon Health Plan,
another plan that at even at its inception showed a trajectory for funding
ABOUT THE COSTS
Both Katz and Kitzhaber worked their plans through an economic boom in
Oregon when tax revenues were on a steady growth path. But even then,
economists were clear-eyed in their predictions that the boom time would
not last forever. The high-flying revenue years
of the nineties allowed the governor and the legislature to play a game
of fill-the-holes, from budget cycle to budget cycle. That game came to
an end with the recession that hit Oregon some time around March
In fairness, the Oregon Health Plan has probably delivered its promised
product far better than Katz’ CIM-CAM reform. But both plans overshot
their revenue sources by a country mile. And both “leaders”
had every reason to know they would do so when they presented them.
Now, with an education budget impasse that has brought us crying children
on the local nightly news and maudlin photos of overwrought parents and
school board members (at least someone understands the bottom line), it’s
time to end the expenditure experiments. It’s time to get the product
back on track in a way that meets the available revenue sources.
ABOUT THE SOLUTIONS
When contacted about budget questions, Portland Public Schools asked that
we compare them to a business enterprise of the same size. Fair enough.
If the salary being considered for the new superintendent for Portland
Public Schools is $154,000, why not ask the top candidates to bid for
the job instead? What’s wrong with local candidates? Why not offer
the job to the candidate who is willing, immediately, to take a 10 percent
cut in pay to lead the way for the rest his or her administration?Let’s
see the travel budget, then cut it 75 percent. Next, let’s see the
budget for outside contractors; cut it 75 percent. Let’s see the
budget for conferences and training sessions; cut it 75 percent. Let’s
see the public relations budget. Eliminate it completely.
Next, let’s look at the ratio of customers to employees. PPS was
kind enough to provide those numbers: 54,000 customers and
6,200 employees. That’s one employee for every 8.7 students. Parents
about the rising number of students per classroom teacher should be aghast
at the employee:student ratio. Aghast.
No wonder the janitors are on the chopping block.
If contracting out janitorial services could save $4 million a year, why
wasn’t that done 10 years ago? If savings like this are possible
in Portland, why aren’t the same things being done to save money
across the state?
Why do we have over 200 school districts, and then an additional layer
of Education Service Districts on top of them? Other states don’t.
Oregon’s Department of Education has failed to provide guidance
on multiple levels. Why not trim funding here by at least 20 percent?
Return to standardized testing that the rest of the nation finds completely
satisfactory and eliminate all the staff work on CIM-CAM reform changes.
Next, check the travel budget, the PR budget, the outside contractor budget.
Ax them all.
Why not consider eliminating every service, every activity, every single
distraction not relevant to academics from every school building? Okay,
that’s a pretty radical idea—to get education back to the
mission of education—but while we’re throwing around wild
ideas, here goes.
If it’s not about teaching music, art, math, reading, science, etc.,
if it’s not about education, get it out of the building and out
of the budget. All these eliminated services can be in a building next
door, but their product dollars and their staff dollars have to stand
on their own two non-education feet. The bait-and-switch game with our
education dollars is killing our schools and failing our kids.
Is anyone interested in actually getting somewhere on education, or should
we just go back to the same old arguments about cutting small costs here
and finding little extra pots of tax revenue there?
The expenditure experiments of the 90s have cost millions, but now the
governor harangues others to come up with the solutions, in a special
session. This crisis, in the Katz and Kitzhaber research & development
phase for the past decade, will not be that simple to solve, and Kitzhaber
knows it. But to his great dismay, and to the great relief of many Oregon
taxpayers, the time has passed for them to be part of the solution. Katz
no longer holds sway in Salem, and the governor’s term and any chance
at a legacy are near the end.
Here’s one suggestion for a cost saving the governor can still accomplish:
Come November, he can turn off the lights when he leaves the building.