Photo courtesy of The Bulletin

Bend-La Pine’s Local Option Levy Fails in Primary Election

Decreased funding will lead to staffing cuts, increased class sizes and fewer elective and academic opportunities

Bend-La Pine Schools’ proposed local option levy failed dramatically in the primary election on Tuesday, May 22. The five-year levy, which aimed to recruit and retain school district staff, maintain class sizes and expand advanced academic and elective opportunities, only received 42.66 percent of votes. This makes Bend-La Pine Schools one of Oregon’s only remaining large school districts not to have passed a local option levy.

Without the levy, Bend-La Pine Schools will lose as many as 180 staff positions over the next two years. Although these cuts will occur primarily through attrition rather than mass lay-offs, Bend Education Association president Sarah Barclay warns of the impacts of these losses.

“When you think about 60 positions going away for next year, you’re talking about two humans in each of our schools that will no longer be there to support students,” said Barclay. This will directly affect students throughout the school district, leading to increased class sizes at all grade levels and a weakened support system for struggling students.

Another negative impact of the levy’s failure is decreased funding for the arts, electives and advanced academic programs in Bend-La Pine Schools. These offerings and programs, which would have expanded under the levy, will instead shrink drastically. Performing arts and elective classes will be at a heightened risk, and many teachers of these classes worry that their positions will be cut.

“Summit has shown that they’re dedicated to preserving the performing arts, but it’s going to be hard in a few years when that levy money is needed,” said Natalie Tripp, a Summit High School senior and member of the theater department. 

Tripp has a message for those who voted against the levy. “Go to any high school performance,” she said. “Whether it be a band concert, an art showcase or a theater production, just go see it and tell me that those kids don’t deserve to pursue what they love.”

While there are many potential reasons why people voted against the levy, one of the biggest is Bend’s high cost of living. Local median home prices have risen exponentially in recent years, and many families are already struggling to compensate for this change. 

“Although I think [the community supports] our schools and the work that we do in educating students and making sure that our next generation of community members can be successful, it’s hard to commit to additional money going out of your pocket each year to support those things when you’re already struggling to get by,” said Barclay.

Jenessa Thomas, a community member and Bend-La Pine Schools parent, agreed with Barclay, saying that the financial aspect of the levy led to feelings of confliction while voting.

“I did vote in support of the school levy, but it wasn’t a simple decision,” said Thomas. “I am not in favor of a regressive tax model like the school levy, and would rather fix the shortfalls through adequate state funding.” This sentiment has been common among voters, particularly those who voted against the levy, and it is a valid point—the schools are underfunded, but should it really be the job of the community to make up for this budget deficit?

Whatever the answer to this question is, it’s clear that something must be done to make up for the inadequate funding of Bend-La Pine Schools and other school districts in Oregon. While a local option levy may still be an option for Bend-La Pine Schools in the future, the systemic lack of state dollars must be addressed immediately. Thankfully, there are many people willing to fight for the funding and future of schools in Central Oregon and beyond.

“I see a lot of pro-public school organizations looking to advocate together to make sure that our state better funds our public schools,” said Barclay. The failure of the local option levy may be demoralizing to some, and rightly so. However, Barclay remains hopeful that the Bend Education Association and school district will be able to appeal to state legislators and improve state funding for public schools. 

The levy’s failure is a setback for teachers, students and families alike, but with advocacy and community support, perhaps a more permanent solution will soon present itself. In the meantime, those affiliated with Bend-La Pine Schools must prepare for several difficult years.