Corvallis is nationally known as a university town with a well-regarded K-12 public school system — a great place to live, work, raise a family and, for a growing number of new arrivals, a great place to retire. Real estate values reflect the city’s appeal.

But I believe this reputation is being put at risk by an opaque, overly-cautious, by-the-numbers approach toward school programs that are known to enhance the experience and performance of our most important asset: our children.

Expanded counseling services, smaller class sizes, improved school nutrition, extended library services and others appear achievable now. If the numbers become more widely known, I believe the Corvallis community will demand more for its school dollar.

Last November voters overwhelmingly renewed a five-year local option levy ($1.50 per $1,000 of assessed property value). The levy plus property taxes are projected to provide over $31 million of the School District’s projected $70 million in operating revenues this school year. When it comes to funding K-12 public education, Corvallis taxpayers are “all in.” But is this huge taxpayer investment having the desired impacts inside the schoolhouse?

In 2007, after years of declining enrollment, reductions in funding, and as the then-business manager said, “a long history of struggling to make ends meet,” the School Board amended its fiscal policies to include: a contingency reserve of 2.5 percent (of operating revenues); a rainy day reserve of 5 percent; an ending fund balance of 5 percent; and targeted reserves for special needs.

The decade since the adoption of this policy brought some very challenging economic scenarios. The district — guided by its policies, showing flexibility when needed, and riding the coattails of the improving economy that followed the Great Recession — weathered all of these challenges admirably. The financial report presented to the board on Oct. 12 showed the district ended last school year holding reserves of $10.1 million or 15.7 percent of operating revenue. Projections thru the end of this school year forecast reserves of $11.8 million, or 16.8 percent of projected operating revenues.

District staff and the board deserve credit for bringing the school system’s financial picture to such an enviable position. It reflects quite well on their stewardship of taxpayers' dollars.

But are these levels of reserves maintained at the educational expense of students in our classroom today?

Increased mental health services, additional educational assistants, smaller class sizes, improved school nutrition, targeted teacher grants, increased discretionary funding and the staffing of elementary school library media centers for the entire school day are areas that would likely raise student achievement. Rather than asking, “In order to provide those, what programs should we cut?” the board might lower the rainy day reserves, to let’s say 2.5 percent, and free up an estimated $1.7 million, still leaving a sizable buffer.

Does managing by percentages and strict adherence to policy guidelines make the best use of our K-12 education tax dollars? What amount of reserves is right? What opportunities do students lose when the district maintains such an enviable operating surplus?

I believe that given the current economic conditions and outlook the board should put more money into the classroom and less in the bank. Also that a community discussion about our K-12 fiscal policies, coupled with proactive School Board public engagement when setting the annual budget priorities and parameters, would be healthy and in the best interest of our children — who really are our future.

Scott Newsham was an appointed member of the Corvallis School Board from September 2015 thru June 2017. He was previously an elected member of the Alexandria City (Virginia) School Board.

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