The Volatile Nature of Education: Is Coastal Living in Jeopardy Part VIII

© 2018-Siuslaw News

Local education systems struggle with the ups and downs of funding while trying to build the future

Jan. 30, 2018 — Jesse Motichka fiddles with his iPad during his fifth-grade math class. His eyes are transfixed on the screen and his headphones drown out the world around him. In most cases, this would earn him an earful from his teacher and a time-out, but in Mapleton Elementary School, kids are encouraged to play with their technology.

Jesse is playing a game – on his teacher’s orders. As he fidgets with dials that scroll through numbers, a digital window correspondingly shoots through space, whizzing by celestial bodies until he narrows in on his target number. A correct matching of numeric place values deposits more coins into his online profile. His classmates at either side are engrossed in their own math-based games, each working busily to earn more points.

Activities like this have become part of the curriculum in Mapleton’s elementary math classes, instituting a unique digital approach to learning.

“The kids just soak it up and they’re not afraid to jump in and start pushing buttons,” said Sarah Timpe, who teaches third- and fourth-grade. “It’s more like a video game, so it’s more engaging to them. But instead of typical video games, they’re figuring out answers.”

A Smart Board at the front of each class invites students to write, erase and drag objects on a digital screen for a more interactive experience. For reading classes, children can find sound patterns and drag words into matching columns. It’s a technology the students are enthusiastic to engage with and one the teachers are finding helpful.

“The Smart Board was a little tricky, but I figured it out,” said fifth- and sixth-grade teacher Clara Smith. “I can pull up a PowerPoint with our lesson on it and I can write on it. … We have a document camera, too, which is part of the new-age overhead.”

Mapleton Elementary School’s advancements are preparing a generation for an age that increasingly relies on new technology for commerce, work and education. As these tech-savvy children grow up, it remains to be seen if their skills will remain in the community or entice them to find work elsewhere.

Mapleton School District Superintendent Jodi O’Mara believes future workers may have more opportunities to work with technology.

“When they graduate, a lot of the jobs out there are going to be technology-based or even home-based,” she said. “I think it could potentially keep more graduates in the community.”

While the degree to which technology will play a role in each child’s life depends on the paths they choose, Mapleton teaching staff agree technology encourages problem-solving skills in a way unique to their generation.

“I think it’s good because they’re seeing a different kind of technology than they would use at home,” said Smith.

Timpe said, “I can say from personal experience I’m somewhat challenged with learning new technology. Having access to it now is an advantage because technology is always changing.”

Jesse and fellow fifth-grader Alex Burnett both plan to follow family footsteps.

“I wanna do what my dad does,” said Alex. “He does logging.”

“I’ll probably do the same thing,” said Jesse.

Neither Jesse nor Alex think all this new technology will influence their jobs as adults.

“You only have to use equipment like chainsaws, yarders, skidders, cats,” said Jesse.

Meanwhile, at the table across from them, classmate Makayla Bender says she wants to be a veterinarian.

While it may be too early for these children to pave out the story of their lives, their interests are reflective of the diversity needed in the workforce, and these interests are nurtured through their education opportunities. Education opportunities, in turn, are nurtured by the strength of a community’s economy and workforce.

“Ballot Measure 5”

“We go back 20 years ago, with the tail end of the heyday of the timber industry. There was a great support system around that,” Andy Grzeskowiak said.

As the superintendent of the Siuslaw School District, he is particularly keen on discovering why he’s had issues with funding the schools he oversees, and what it will take to fix them.

Back in the day, the high schools and the lumber industry held a symbiotic relationship, due in large part to how the mills were run.  

“Not everybody worked in the woods or the mills directly,” Grzeskowiak said. “You had all these other trades, some of which were trained from inside the system. Service engineers within the mills made sure the mill ran. And then you had people that were trained from the outside who could come in and run the mill to make sure operations could run well.”

There were mechanics, welders, general laborers - almost every trade had some sort of representation in the mills, and the mills got many of these workers directly from the high schools.

“You had kids that would come in and start off in entry level jobs,” Grzeskowiak said. “They would work part time and they would do some professional technical training. And they would become the welders for the mill, or they would start off as a load operator and then wind up going to Lane Community College and become a diesel mechanic. And then they’re a mechanic for that facility.”

While the mills were slowly going out of business, the technical careers that the students learned in the mills kept them in the community. Florence was building its retirement infrastructure. Homes and businesses were going up.

Then, in 1990, the system began to crash. That was the year Ballot Measure 5, an amendment to the Oregon Constitution, decreased the rates of property taxes in Oregon.

Before the change, schools were funded by property taxes, but the public voted for a drastic cut in taxes. Before Measure 5, $19.64 was charged for every $1,000 a house was worth. After the measure came into full effect, $5 for every $1,000 was taxed. In its place, income tax was used as the primary funder of schools.

Suddenly, “volatility” became the buzzword for those looking to fund schools.

“Income tax is the most volatile tax there is,” Grzeskowiak said. “Once we started linking state funding to that, that’s when things got dicey.”

It got dicey for the entire state of Oregon. Programs were cut, teachers fired. Vocational programs and the arts were slashed. While bond measures and grants were used to offset some of the shortfall, they were, by their very nature, volatile. They were also project specific.

By the year 2000, the Quality Education Commission was set up to see how much money the schools needed to keep going. As it turned out, they needed a lot.

In response to the commission, Measure 1 was passed in 2001. This required the legislature to fund school quality goals, issue reports and establish equalization grants. Except it didn’t really do those things. Multiple reports were issued, but funding rarely made it to the schools.

As programs continued to be cut, the Great Recession of 2008 hit. Construction in the Siuslaw region tanked, and the skilled workers ended up leaving the community. Siuslaw High School, which was dependent on income tax, was at a crossroads: Keep the technical vocational training, or aim for four-year colleges?

“We had a change of focus away from technical education to more of a college-focused track,” Grzeskowiak said. “We had this push for college readiness, and at the same time we were reducing funds overall. Things that were considered to be electives were in the career fields. Programs in mechanics and welding, printmaking and photography, all started getting reduced. That’s where we also start seeing things in art and PE that were being considered non-essential.”

Teachers who weren’t laid off began instruction geared to college entrance exams, with the goal of sending students out to four-year institutions, leaving the Siuslaw region bereft of young, trade-oriented professionals.

This had been a national trend for years, with blue-collar work often being devalued in the face of more “prestigious” career goals. However, the push hurt a lot of students.

“The idea was, everybody was going to become a scientist, an engineer or a mathematician,” Grzeskowiak said. “We’re going to get everybody to go to college because it’s a good thing. And then the floodgates opened and everybody was going to college.”

The finances hit the millennial generation the hardest. According to a 2017 Forbes article, the average American household with student debt owes about $49,000. Graduates in their 20s spend, on average, $350 a month just on student loans.

But the jobs that the college graduates are getting aren’t necessarily paying for those student loans. The same Forbes article states that the average “entry-level” job was worth about $50,000 a year for new graduates. They can expect their wages being garnished 10 percent for roughly 10 to 12 years after they graduate, just to pay off the student loan.

And that’s if they get a job.

“Having a university degree isn't a guarantee for employment,” Grzeskowiak pointed out.

In 2016, Marketwatch reported that 45 percent of college graduates worked in “non-college jobs,” which is defined as a position in which fewer than 50 percent of the workers in that job need a bachelor’s degree. Low-skilled jobs, including baristas, bartenders and cashiers, accounted for 19.3 percent of underemployed graduates.

The “four-year” university is taking a lot longer to finish as well. In 2016, the National Student Clearinghouse reported that students take five to six years to actually finish a degree, and go to multiple institutions to do it.

While budgetary concerns are a major drive for this, Grzeskowiak points out another problem in the “four-year” push.

“We thought we were going to solve all of our problems by sending everyone into the tech industry,” he said.  “There was this fantasy piece within computers that everybody was going to be a video game programmer. If you could do it and do it well, you could make a lot of money at it — but it’s like every other field. Every field has superstars in it, and that’s always a draw. You always have that romantic tinge to it. ‘Hey, be a video game designer and make all this money.’”

But, not everybody can be a videogame designer. According to a CNN report, there are only 520,800 jobs video game jobs worldwide. “With competition in the game space so fierce, there’s no room for mistakes,” the report said.

 “Trying to get a 16-year-old kid to try and figure out what they want to do and jump to college is a tough thing to do,” Grzeskowiak said.  “There is some value in taking some time, maybe taking a year or two, and then going to school. And that’s probably part of the downfall of the push to get to college right out of high school. We funneled everybody into one path and into one timeline. And not everybody falls lockstep into that age and development.”

The push for college racked up debt for those who went. To pay for that, many millennials moved back into their parent’s homes in retirement communities like the Siuslaw region. However, some don’t have the skills that the region requires to enter the workforce.

This is where Russ Pierson, dean of Lane Community College (LCC) Florence Center, comes in.

“Please do something”

To Pierson, LCC Florence is a lifeblood to the community. He found this out on his first day on the job back on 2015.

“Many members of the board of education were here for a listen session,” he said. “They were going around from community to community, talking to folks about the college, its direction and its importance to the community. Florence had as many people as the rest combined show up that evening. They had gone here, or their child or a cousin. An employee. Everybody has some sort of connection. Most of the community has some tie with LCC.”

Currently, LCC’s enrollment population has an average age of 31. This ranges from students who are looking for a career path to adults who never finished their GEDs.

“We have students who come out of high school, but we also have students who are coming to retool or find another career or upgrade their skill set,” Pierson said.

When students graduate from LCC, there are jobs waiting for them in the Siuslaw region. A quick view of listings on Oregon’s employment department website shows a whole host of them. CNA. Respiratory therapist. Diesel mechanic. Production worker.

The lumber industry isn’t dead. In fact, it needs more employees.  One logging industry member, who preferred to remain anonymous, said, “It’s not just logging. Manual labor jobs are almost impossible to fill in industries that require hard physical work.”

But these jobs need a certain amount of skilled training, and the employers often come to Pierson for help.

“I have had conversations with employers not able to find workforce,” Pierson said. “Unfortunately, those needs are usually immediate. It’s like, ‘Please, do something!’”

The problem is, many times he can’t “do something.” Like Grzeskowiak, Pierson has a problem with funding.

“A lot of it is the tax measure. In basic tax economics, people talk about a three-legged stool: Property tax, income tax and sales tax. Well, we’ve got two out of three, and one is severely hampered after Measure 5. We’re running on one and a half legs. I’ve been in Oregon much longer than I’ve been anywhere else. I’m not a big fan of sales tax either, I like not paying sales tax. But honestly, at some point, we have to raise some tax. Or do something to repair the property tax the way it was gutted.”

Pierson does what he can with the funding he has. LCC Florence is an extension center. Unlike a satellite campus, which can provide some complement of full degree programs, extension centers are more limited in their offerings. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t get a student what they need.

“A student can come here and graduate, but it’s going to be some onsite classes, a few online classes, probably a couple of video classes,” Pierson said. “It does open it up. I think of it as another tool in the tool belt. When a student decides to come here, we’ll work with that student to tailor our offerings, literally, almost to the student. I do wish we had the community size to support a full-on satellite campus, as that would be wonderful.”

But Pierson, along with Mapleton and Siuslaw school districts, are looking to expand the educational options in the region. And in the process, create the symbiotic relationship between schools and businesses that existed before.

“Binding Business and Education”

In 2016, Measure 98 was passed, requiring the Oregon Legislature to fund dropout prevention and career and college readiness programs in Oregon high schools. Grzeskowiak is using this as a jumping off point to rebuild the technical career courses in the high school and, in the process, rebuilding industry in the Siuslaw region.

One of the first obstacles that Grzeskowiak is facing is a severe teacher shortage that is hitting America.

An August article in the Washington Post explained the problem: “Teacher shortages are nothing new … but the problem has grown more acute in recent years as the profession has been hit with low morale over low pay, unfair evaluation methods, assaults on due-process rights, high-stakes testing requirements, insufficient resources and other issues.”

Because of that, Grzeskowiak has to poach teachers from different trades.

“When we talk about filling a position next year, like woodshop, we’ll probably be recruiting someone who is currently working in the industry,” he said. “Somebody that is a general contractor who is looking to make a change into education. We would be sponsoring them to get a professional/technical teaching license.”

Once Grzeskowiak is able to find these instructors and get them trained, the work of building a Siuslaw workforce can begin.

“We have contractors in town who are looking for kids who have some skills to begin with. They’re willing to teach the rest of those skills on the job site. They want to be able to turn those kids into contractors themselves and then be able to have the ability to subcontract out parts of their jobs to those kids so they can start building their own companies.”

Companies that could stay in the region.

And it’s not just contracting companies that could be built. These worksites would train roofers, framers, electricians, plumbers — all of them working together and starting their own businesses.

These are the types of jobs that can last year-round. If there is a lull in workload, Grzeskowiak said, they can use the skills they learned to do general repair around town.

“Here are people that make a great living going around taking small jobs for people that don’t know how to do those specialty pieces,” Grzeskowiak said. “Especially in a small community with a lot of senior citizens.”

While staying in the region after graduation is not a desire for most high school graduates, there are those who prefer to stay.  

“We have a lot of kids who want to stay local,” Grzeskowiak said.  “They want to jump right into a family business and a regular job and get going on a life and a family. There’s nothing wrong with that. They just need the opportunities to have a wage-earning job to support that. That’s coming back to getting the construction/engineering program back and running. Somebody can learn onsite with getting a little training coming out of school.”

One obstacle Pierson and Grzeskowiak have is getting younger generations interested in the blue-collar sector again.

There have been multiple studies pointing to millennials’ lack of excitement about these industries. An April 2017 article from Builder magazine described the problem after conducting a survey. It stated 63 percent of surveyed youth said there was little to no chance that they would ever consider a profession in the trade field, no matter how much it paid. They thought it was too physically difficult.

“Lazy” is a typical way millennials are described.

“I’ve seen those statistics too,” Pierson said. “I think it’s just a bunch of crotchety old boomers making stuff up. I am not a millennial basher. I’m a boomer. We were all going to San Francisco in the Summer of Love. We went through our time. And every generation does.”

For Pierson and Grzeskowiak, it’s not that younger generations are inherently against these types of jobs, it’s just that they haven’t been exposed to it.

“We need to do a better job in letting the students know those are great paying jobs and good careers,” Pierson said. “There are a few happy plumbers in this town that make more than me. There’s potential for growth and right out of the chute, a good paying job. As opposed to someone who goes to a four-year university, depending on what they’re going into, they have to pay their dues for years. With trade work, your dues are paid once you’ve got that trade certificate. There are some that you can do in a year or less. CNA is just six weeks. That’s the lowest rung of the healthcare trail, but it will get you started and get you a job. You’ll get job benefits.

“It’s nothing to sneeze at.”

Ultimately, it’s about giving students choice. Give them as many hands-on options in grade school as possible, which will then prepare them for a future that is uncertain. In this case, uncertainty is a good thing, according to Grzeskowiak.

“To think that everybody’s going to make the same jump at 17 or 18 when some people may not figure out the path until their 20 or 30 is not realistic,” Grzeskowiak said. “We created a funnel point directly to four-year colleges.  And now, coming back, taking the funnel, we’re really widening it. Community college, universities and vocational ed, whatever path you pick, it’s the same. It works. Go ahead and pick one. And if you want to cross over later, you can. And I think that’s the message that’s been lost. The decision we make at 16 or 17 doesn’t lock you in forever. It’s rare that people stay in one career their entire life. Pick one, and then if you want to move around, go right ahead. It gives kids a little more hope for the future.” 

“The old college try”

On the post-high school level, Pierson is working hard to build the kind of programs that Grzeskowiak is gearing up for.

“We’re bringing CNA training here to the Florence Center,” Pierson said. “Folks can enter in, get their CNA certificate, find a job locally. We’re actually partnering with Peacehealth Peace Harbor on this program. Employers will want people to upgrade their skills. There’s a pretty clear pathway from CNA to RN certifications.”

Pierson is also helping current business owners run their business more smoothly. LCC offers classes through its Florence Small Business Management Program, via the Oregon Small Business Development Network (SBDC). The three-year program, taught by instructor Gary Smith, covers everything from marketing and strategic planning to sales management and fraud prevention.

At the main LCC campus in Eugene, the course costs $600, but Pierson was able to get funding to reduce the price to $349.

Interest in the program has been high.

“We had 12 people initially sign up,” Pierson said. “They also did the same offer at the Cottage Grove center. Nobody signed up in Cottage Grove. And we had 12 students.”

The course is now entering its second year, and participants like Florence Area Chamber of Commerce President Bobby Jensen sings its praises.

But future classes were put into doubt because of budgetary concerns. The funding to discount the class was delayed.

“We hoped to do the same thing the second year, and unfortunately, we got no information about the funding until it was too late,” Pierson said. ‘I had to tell people, ‘We have this program, maybe it’s $600? Maybe it’s $349? Would you sign up until we know?’”

Because of the funding confusion, they missed the first class, which was scheduled for September.

That doesn’t mean that Pierson is giving up on local entrepreneurs.

“We could certainly get one of the small business coaches over here,” he said. “I’m also a fan of the Regional Accelerator and Innovation Network (RAIN), which has a series of pub talks where people can talk about what they’re going through. They’ve had special speakers come in and talk about financing. And that would apply to anyone.”

Pierson is set to be the next president of Florence Area Chamber of Commerce.

“The Chamber makes a concerted effort, too. We have our noon forums that touch up on different aspects of business, and they’re open to the public. And we’ve also played around with pub talk series. And all free. There are a lot of free resources available.”

He’s also working with both local school districts to expand LCC’s offerings into the high schools.

“We don’t have any technical trade space here at our facilities,” Pierson said. “Closest thing we have is an art lab, so we’re at a disadvantage in offering those things. But I’m convinced that we can work some things out with the high schools … so we could offer classes in their spaces. And they could offer some classes in our spaces. Instead of just AP classes, some high school students could literally come to the college for classes.”

And it’s not just high school students that could benefit from the expansions. Classes could be held that would combine high school students, college students and continuing education students to work together in a classroom setting.

These programs could create more skilled workers of all ages, which could in turn create more jobs in the community.

But all of this hinges on whether or not they can obtain funding. If there’s one shortcoming to Measure 98, it’s that it’s not fully subsidized.

Some hoped that Measure 97, which went up for vote at the same time as 98, would help float the costs. That measure would have removed the corporate gross sales tax, establishing a 2.5 percent tax on gross sales that exceed $25 million.

But 97 was defeated.

Because of that, Grzeskowiak and Pierson have to be very cognizant on what they spend and how they spend it. Grzeskowiak is holding off on hiring the Computer Technology and Business teacher because of the never-ending budget crunch. While the position is already budgeted, those funds might have to be used elsewhere.

“I’m waiting to start pitching and hiring that position until after the Jan. 23 Special Election,” Grzeskowiak said.

He’s talking about Measure 101, up for vote this month, which looks to tax some hospitals, insurance companies and other entities to make up for a Medicaid funding shortfall. It has nothing to do with education, but with the tight economic squeeze that Oregon is in, even the most peripheral of budget laws can have severe effects on schools.

“If it doesn’t pass, the state’s going to have to make a budget correction. And schools are a significant part of the state budget. It would hit us. I don’t know what that would look like,” Grzeskowiak said. “I wouldn’t want to start recruiting someone now and then have that election come through and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to lay you off before you even started work.’ We have to be mindful of that.”

If Measure 101 passes, Grzeskowiak will have a limited window to implement and grow the program.

All the strides that LCC and the Siuslaw School District are making are based on a razor thin hope that the economy will remain stable.

Historically, that’s not realistic.

“Recession”

With an unemployment rate of 4.3 percent, strong consumer confidence and a seemingly endless bull market, 2017 made the pains of the 2008 Great Recession almost disappear.

But every bull needs its bear. And this next bear may be particularly vicious, according to some economists.

America is in the 102nd month of economic expansion. Only two other expansions have lasted longer, one from 1961 to 1969, the other from 1991 to 2001. Both of those bull markets led to recessions. They were brief, and with the help of federal regulation (and in the case of 2001, the Afghanistan War) the pangs of the recessions were held at bay.

But the economy, and the country as a whole, is more fragile now than it was in those periods.

As reported by The Atlantic in October, roughly half of respondents to a Federal Reserve survey said that they could not come up with $400 in an emergency. A third of respondents reported that if they sold all of their assets, dipped into retirement savings, and asked friends or family for help, they still could not cover three months of expenses.

“Americans are no worse off than they were when the last recession hit,” the report read. “But a decade of growth has not made them more secure, either.”

How Americans will deal with the next recession depends on what causes it, and what the government does to curb the bear market’s bite.

How the recession will occur is anybody’s guess. An article written by the Brookings Institution in 2017 stated, “The fact is, most recessions are triggered by exogenous shocks to an economy already weakening — for example, troubles in the Middle East that drive up oil prices, interest rate shifts that slow housing, and miscalculations and malfeasance by financial institutions that jolt equity and bond markets. We do not know how the next recession will begin, but it’s coming in the foreseeable future.”

When it comes, the federal government is also hampered in the way it can respond to a recession. In 2001, President George W. Bush helped push a tax cut and rebate that was a factor in the economy's swift recovery. As the Washington Post pointed out in December 2017, Congress's passage of the recent tax plan renders that tool moot.

The article also points out that interest rates are “already near zero.” The drastic cut in interest rates is one tactic that helped slow the bleeding of the Great Recession. But now, the Federal Reserve has very little to cut.

Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen said, “It does suggest that in some future downturn, which could occur for whatever reason, the amount of fiscal space that would exist for fiscal policy to play an active role will be limited.”

It’s this constant economic uncertainty that can keep school administrators on edge, and the constant monetary tightrope is difficult on both faculty and students.

“Whether the economy is up or the economy is down, kids always are in school,” Grzeskowiak said. “If the state economy dips by 6 percent, and my budget gets cut 6 percent, I don’t have the luxury of sending 6 percent of the kids home. I’m able to send 6 percent of the staff home, but 100 percent of the kids show up. That’s the reality.”

And when 100 percent of the students show up with fewer teachers, it lowers the quality of education.

“Having these radical shifts from year to year, that becomes stressful on teachers as well as kids,” Grzeskowiak said. “Kids walk into a classroom one year, it’s 25 kids. The next year it’s 35 kids. And then it’s 25 kids the next year. At the high school, one year you have three electives to choose from, the next year you have eight electives to choose from, then the next year you have two electives to choose from.”

Pierson said, “It puts us at the state’s mercy, in terms of operational funding. Obviously, the legislature is a political entity.”

And political entities can sometimes miss the broader picture.

While Measure 98 was a mandate for high schools, it didn’t mention institutions like LCC.  

“It’s not really impacting community colleges, unfortunately. Hello, Governor Brown, help,” Pierson said, waving his hand in the air.

While Pierson and Grzeskowiak believe that the ultimate fix to school issues would be to implement tax reform in Oregon, they do see other programs, like Measure 101, being implemented to help.

“We have the interest and intention of various levels of government,” Pierson said.

Silver linings exist, too, in success stories the likes of which can be seen in the classrooms of Mapleton School District, where O’Mara’s diligence has won the district millions of dollars in grant funding. That funding has gone straight into renovations and technological upgrades, providing a learning environment with richer opportunities for the district’s youth.

As generations of graduates reaping the benefits of classroom advancements enter the workforce, their adaptability to the demands of next-generation jobs will be crucial to securing a prosperous local economy. And with economic shifts being inevitable, a degree of stability arguably lies in the flexibility of generations to come.

“The kids who have technology will be a lot more savvy with it,” said Timpe as she looks over Mapleton students diligently working out math problems. “And when they get to high school, and then college, it’s an advantage.”

Note: This is part 8 of a 9 part series. Find additional installments in the Special Series Archive, located here.