The River Road community has plenty of room for improvement but doesn’t have the money to make them. Budget cuts are affecting us all, but River Road has really taken a hit. Schools are suffering increasing class sizes and program cuts due to increasing lack of government funding for education.
As the Eugene population grows older, there are less school-aged children, meaning lower enrollment in schools. “School districts receive funding on a per student basis, so funding declines when enrollment declines,” says Barb Bellamy, director of communications for 4J school district. According to the 4J budget documents, “Student enrollment has decreased from 17,563 to 16,377 in the past five years.” With these enrollment drops, school budgets are cut causing students and staff suffer on multiple levels.
Increasing Class Sizes
Oregon has the second highest average class sizes in the country. The local elementary, middle, and high school in River Road are all facing similar hardships due to budget cuts and lack of government funding. Terri Hunt, the office manager at Kelly Middle School says, “Last year’s budget cuts were huge and we took a big hit on staffing. Our classes went from around 28 up to 35-39 kids in a classroom. Our instructional assistant time was also cut. Now they have no help plus five or six more kids in the class. It’s a huge behavior management issue.” With class sizes increasing and staff sizes decreasing every year, the future of public education doesn’t have a promising forecast.
Lori Henry, secretary of Howard Elementary School agrees that when it comes to number of students in the classroom, less is more. “One of the biggest things that affects us is the after school program is facing some major cuts and class sizes are increasing,” Henry says. Class sizes are increasing at every grade level and it’s starting to take a toll an students and teachers.
“I’ve been doing this 13 years and every year we’ve had a budget cut. It gets cut on average 8-10% each year,” Hunt says. As funding continues to shrink significantly every year, students are reaping the consequences. “They don’t get as much attention or help as much as they used to,” Kelly Middle School assistant principle, Wes Flinn say. A teacher to student ratio of 1:40 isn’t exactly conducive for the best learning environment. The time teachers should be spending with students giving individual feedback and attention is now spent keeping the large number of students focused and under control. Unfortunately in this crowded environment, teachers are put under more stress and students feel like just another face in the crowd. “Our class sizes are larger than we would like them to be and it makes it more difficult for teachers to meet the learning needs of all of their students and help all students to achieve at higher levels” says Bellamy. These school years are crucial for students to develop as individuals and when they don’t receive the attention they need, they’re restricted from reaching their full potential.
Arts and Electives Cut First
Increasing class sizes aren’t the only thing taking away from Eugene student’s educations. When funding falls short and classes have to be cut, art, music, PE and other elective classes are the first to go. “The programs that are being cut are electives. I think it’s one of our biggest problems. It doesn’t allow students to have that alternative in their education,” Cheryl Storms in Financials at North Eugene High School says. Electives are being cut at all levels of education in the 4J school district. “We don’t have any art classes or a choir class. There aren’t a lot of elective classes left,” says Hunt of Kelly Middle School. Students aren’t receiving the creative side of the education that they used to.
In economic hard times, the arts and electives generally become expendable. While math, science, and language arts are viewed as the essential subjects, some argue that the arts are just as, if not more valuable to students. With budget cuts continuing to take away from the quality of education, more and more students are falling behind. Students have all different learning styles and there are some that simply don’t do well in the standard subjects like math and writing. In the past, these students have been able to look to the arts for an outlet to excel in, but now they are left with no other options.
Author Ken Robinson presents a TED talk discussing why this is such a problem. He offers a different outlook on the way schools prioritize the subjects explaining, “I believe this passionately: that we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out if it.” With a lack of creativity in student’s educations, they have a very narrow view of the world. Because teachers focus on preparing students for standardized tests, students are “taught what to think, not how to think,” says Robinson. “Creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status,” he says.
All of these program cuts seem to be somewhat contradicting considering the government’s supposed support of teaching children healthy and active lifestyles. Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign encourages schools to increase physical activity and promote healthy lifestyles among students, yet physical education programs are seeing increasing cuts. The campaign is “Creating infrastructure and policies within schools that increase access to and encourage physical activity for all students.” Recognizing children’s need for daily physical activity, the campaign views schools as a “key setting for kids to get their 60 minutes of play with moderate to vigorous activity, given the significant portion of time they spend there.” This has created even more stress on the education system because schools are expected to implement PE programs but aren’t receiving the funding to do so. Students are receiving lower quality education because of this.
Hope for the Future
According to the 4J Sustainable Budget Development Overview, “Even after making deep cuts in recent school years, 4J faces a projected deficit next year of about $22–28 million — that’s a staggering 15–20% of the district’s operating budget.” From $363,451 in 2008/2009, the 4J overall budget shrunk to $292,870 last school year. With the overall school budget facing a steady decrease every year, the 4J school district is forced to cope with the cuts and plan wisely for the future.
“The Eugene School Board is working to develop a sustainable budget. Their goal is a multi-year plan that will bring services in line with revenue, put 4J on a sustainable course, and continue to provide all kids with a sound education.” Even when it seems like things couldn’t be any tighter, the district is careful to do whatever it takes to preserve what the schools have left.“Our employees again take unpaid furlough days next year and will not receive any cost of living increase to help us balance our budget without making another round of major reductions,” Bellamy says.
Despite the economic struggles, members of 4J are hopeful for the future of Eugene schools. As the country continues to climb out of a devastating recession, district staff believes schools will regain what they have lost and be able to provide students with the quality education that they need and deserve.
Q&A: Barbary Bellamy- 4J School District Communications Director
Q: How has school funding changed over the last five years?
A: Funding the public schools in Oregon has dropped over the last 5 years due to the poor economy, as state income tax revenue has declined. This is a major source of funding for public schools. Another factor for our school district is declining enrollment. Eugene’s population is growing older and there are fewer school-aged children. School districts receive funding on a per student basis, so funding declines when enrollment declines.
Q: Which areas and programs in the schools are being affected the most?
A:Class sizes are larger at all grade levels. Music, art and physical education classes have been reduced or eliminated. Athletics and other extra curricular activities programs have been reduced and other student support staff such as nurses and counselors have been greatly reduced. We have made the deepest cuts in administration and the central office, but most of our staff work in schools, so we have not been able to balance the budget without also cutting school staff.
A: How are these cuts affecting the students?
Q: I touched on this. Elementary schools no longer have PE and music throughout the year. At the high school and middle school level, there are fewer course offerings and again music and art are often reduced. Larger class sizes can make it more difficult for students to get personal attention
Q: Do you see a correlation between class size and student performance/grades?
A: We don’t have information that is specific to our district and there is a great deal of debate among education researchers in terms the extent to which class size impacts student achievement. Our class sizes are larger than we would like them to be and make it more difficult for teachers to meet the learning needs of all of their students and help all students to achieve at higher levels.
Q:What steps are being taken to prevent further cuts and increasing class sizes?
A: Next year, the district will spend reserves and one-time funds rather than further increase class sizes. Our employees again take unpaid furlough days next year and will not receive any cost of living increase to help us balance our budget without making another round of major reductions. We are hopeful that as Oregon’s economy improves, our schools will benefit and we will be able to escape further cuts and hopefully begin to restore staff positions, reduce class size and add back programs for students.