Discussions among top education leaders and Gov. Kate Brown started Tuesday with the same chicken-or-the-egg dilemma that has faced Oregon for years.

The state’s schools are short on money. Yet educators’ struggles to manage the resources they do have keep interfering with political efforts to find more.

Brown met with a collection of educators, advocates and administrators in the wake of a state audit that criticized fiscal management at both the Oregon Department of Education and Portland Public Schools. The governor has been pushing legislators to find more money for education this year, and she told the education leaders that “the dynamics of the money on the table” calls for “tightening standards.”

But several members of the group Brown assembled underscored a contrasting theme: School leaders are skeptical of “any requirement without more money.”

Tuesday’s meeting dealt with a set of nine draft recommendations aimed at tightening the financial management of public schools and better aligning money with student needs.

“We want to make sure our financial house is in order — across the board, across all districts and communities,” said Lindsey Capps, the state’s chief education officer and education policy advisor to Brown.

“… I think there’s a second step for us to think about: Where are we going to target new investment to move the needle on outcomes for our kids?” 

The meeting and recommendations are both a response to that scathing audit last month from the Oregon secretary of state’s office.

ODE is expected to respond to the audit’s recommendations for the state agency next week at the State Board of Education. But the governor is at least as interested in what the audit turned up about Oregon’s largest school district.

Tuesday’s 90-minute meeting focused on a set of nine recommendations drafted by a “core team” led by education department director Colt Gill. In an email to OPB, the state emphasized that the recommendations are still “preliminary” and subject to change before they’re presented to the State Board of Education.

The recommendations suggest four areas of improvement:

  • better regular audits, preferably looking at both financial and program aspects of schools;
  • better financial training of everyone from principals, business managers, superintendents and school board members;
  • sharing of “best practices” of spending patterns (possibly with benchmarks, such as 85 percent of spending allocated for core staff salaries and benefits); 
  • the use of analytics to better organize and publish financial information and student achievement data. 

Each of the focus areas drew reasons for support and concern from the assembled education leaders.

More than one education official gave measured enthusiasm for the prospect of more audits, arguing that they’re useful for finding problems but not as well suited to identifying specific solutions. 

Training, they said, is a great way to improve the expertise of district staff and board leadership — but elected board members can’t be required to participate, and staff may have limited time to do so.

Requiring more prior training for certain jobs can make recruiting even more challenging, one participant from a rural district said.

A “best practices” manual — of financial management practices, educational strategies or both — drew support from many participants, though they acknowledged “someone would have to update it,” or it will quickly lose relevance.

Portland Public Schools district headquarters at 550 N. Wheeler Place in Portland, Oregon, Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018.

Portland Public Schools district headquarters at 550 N. Wheeler Place in Portland, Oregon, Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018.

Bradley W. Parks/OPB

Several participants mentioned efforts at the district-level to use a data analytics tools to track and monitor spending practices. District officials, including those from Portland Public Schools, encouraged the governor’s office to look at ways to make it easier to analyze the connection between investments and student outcomes.

“I think the governor sees real promise in that opportunity, so that we’re thinking more strategically, how we improve outcomes, especially for low-income students and students of color,” Capps said.

But in a nod to concerns from school leaders who don’t want new requirements without greater investment, Capps suggested the state is willing to accept more leadership around investing in proven strategies. 

“That does require more of a state role to help be a convener and facilitator of that, and that will probably require more investment and resources to do it,” Capps acknowledged.

Final recommendations are due to the State Board of Education next week.