School district budget approved

The Three Rivers School District Board of Directors held a budget committee meeting prior to their regular monthly session Wednesday, May 15 at their district office on New Hope Rd.
Bill Ertle was unanimously appointed chair of the budget committee to kick the meeting off, with Steve Mars as his vice chair.
TRSD Superintendent Dave Valenzuela then delivered the district’s budget message: “The 2024-2025 budget process for Three Rivers School District promises many exciting things for our students, as well as its fair share of challenges. The state continues to work toward higher state school funding levels in an effort to meet the ever-increasing needs of our students and families. However, in TRSD, like the rest of the state, which has lost nearly 30,000 students in recent years, we continue to experience declining enrollment.”
“In short,” the superintendent continued, “fewer students in our district means fewer state school funding dollars. In addition to this enrollment issue our ability to access COVID relief funding is quickly running out. As we come to the end of a time in education where many things have been funded by ESSER, or Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds, we are forced to make some critical decisions about how we transition away from many of the supports those dollars made possible.”
Valenzuela went on to define the school district’s core values and mission, and how these drive the budget process. “As we build a balanced budget for Three Rivers School District, we must make certain that every expenditure can be correlated to an effort that aligns with our mission statement,” he added.
Following Valenzuela’s speech, the torch was passed to district accounting manager Lisa Cross, who delved into an overview of the proposed budget.
Cross said the budget process begins by calculating the costs associated with existing district programs and staffing, then adding new needs and requests. She said that while accounting staff tries to ensure new items added to the budget are in line with current resources, they occasionally have to go back and make revisions and adjustments.
Some of the desired new expenditures, Cross summarized, were expanded middle school elective classes; more high school CTE courses; additional mental health, behavior and counseling support staff; and retaining small classroom sizes.
“The reality is our costs exceeded our resources,” stated Cross. “Some of the things that affected the resources were increased state mandates.” One example Cross gave was additional categories of employees being eligible for unemployment benefits, which she said resulted in a $438,000 reduction to the district general fund.

Cross also criticized the formula used by state officials to calculate how much financial support to provide the school district. She said this method does not take into account debt service payments or unfunded PERS liability as elements of the district’s current service level.

Breaking down the details of the budget, Cross said the district has over $70 million in general fund revenue. Around 66% of this is designated to salaries and employment costs. The district also has over $24 million in grants.

Topics that were addressed while the budget committee deliberated included transportation costs, state assessments, measuring the impact switching to a four-day school week has had financially and on student success, and what cuts the district will have to make with COVID relief funds drying up.

Without objection, the budget committee approved the budget as it was presented, clearing the way for it to be formally adopted by the Board of Directors at their June 26 session.

The budget committee meeting began at 4:30 p.m. and lasted less than an hour and a half, allowing for a brief recess before the regular session began at 6:13 p.m.

The board’s Say Something Positive speeches touched on events such as Scholarship Night at the district’s high schools, where hundreds of thousands of dollars were awarded to students with high GPAs for their college educations, as well as Valedictorian and Salutatorian celebrations that had been held earlier in the day.

Valenzuela used his superintendent report to speak about the importance of the school bond passing this month because school infrastructure is in desperate need of repair.

During community comments, several individuals decried the new sex ed curriculum being mandated by the state, with some calling it “appalling” and in violation of community values.

Later, Kalmiopsis Community Arts High School faculty delivered a report on KCA’s first year of operation, with teacher leaders Kaci Elder and Melissa DeNardo and student representative Lucy Becker sharing the podium.

Elder recapped that KCA began teaching Aug. 28, 2023 and is located in the Hanby neighborhood of Cave Junction. KCA plans to move to a larger location in downtown Cave Junction later this year.

KCA has a current maximum of 34 students and had this number for most of the school year, but that number was reduced to 32 – 21 girls and 11 boys.

Reflecting the Illinois Valley demographics, Elder said 88% of students are low income and 29.4% are non-white. The school has four teacher leaders, one adjunct teacher and one office manager; their school board consists of nine members, including two student representatives.

Elder reiterated the school’s four guiding principles: 1) Youth leadership grows genuine confidence; 2) Creative expression is a human right; 3) Rural communities count; 4) Multiple perspectives build a better world.

With a budget of $345,950, KCA reported that they are currently 35% under budget. Elder credits community donations and frugal spending for this feat.

KCA received glowing praise from board member Jennifer Johnstun, who called the school “an awesome place for kids.”

Toward the end of the meeting, the board voted on adopting a new math curriculum for the first time in 20 years. Board members Jennifer Johnstun and Pat Kelly as well as Board Chair Rich Halsted voted in the affirmative while board member Nancy Reese abstained due to uncertainties she had about the curriculum.

The decision was less cut and dry when it came to adopting a new health curriculum, which would include sex ed lessons members of the community claim are “perverse.”

Questions were raised about the process families will have for opting their high school students out of lessons that do not reflect their values, and it was decided that the matter should be tabled until the following meeting while these questions are pondered.

Valenzuela reminded the board that by not adopting the new curriculum, they would miss the deadline for instituting it for the coming school year and the 20-year-old curriculum currently in place will continue to be taught.

Kelly then suggested a special workshop be held in early June on the health curriculum where the board would either vote for or against the curriculum after a discussion with the community. He was told that the deadline to order textbooks was the end of the week, so it would not make a difference.

The board was, however, interested in a listening session devoted wholly to the health curriculum. With graduations and summer vacations, they could not agree on a date to hold this before the June 26 meeting, so it was eventually decided to add the listening session to the meeting’s agenda.