Of the three school districts in the Eugene-Springfield area, Bethel School District, with 5,700 students in northwest Eugene, is considered more diminutive than the rest. That’s not entirely accurate, Bethel Superintendent Colt Gill says, when you take a look at the bigger picture. “There are just under 200 school districts in Oregon, and out of those 200, Bethel is the 24th largest school district,” he says. “So in the area, we’re considered kind of small, but in the state, we’re considered one of the largest districts because we’re in the top 25.”
Gill says that because of this, he seeks to engage with the education community on the state level as well as local — he’s a commissioner on the Quality Education Commission, which helps set the cost of meeting Oregon’s educational goals or, as Gill puts it, “that number the legislators hate because it shows how far they are from funding our schools adequately.”
He’s also president of the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators, allowing him to influence decisions and participate in conversations that affect classrooms all over Oregon. Most of all, Gill says, he’d like to see Bethel as well as districts around the state regain some lost ground by reducing class sizes, adding back school days and getting to the point where schools can start enhancing their offerings. His big dream for Bethel, he says, is to craft a K-12 world languages program.
EW met with Gill, an Oregon native nine years into his role as superintendent, to chat about what’s happening in Bethel and on the larger education scene of Oregon.
Do you feel that growing up here and working in Oregon helps you as an administrator of an Oregon school district?
Did growing up here really help me? I’m not sure about that. But being an administrator and coming up through the Oregon system, that has definitely helped. I’m very familiar with the entire history of changes that have happened here.
When I first starting teaching here, there were no state tests, and each district had its own standardized test that it gave. I think that kind of history is helpful, and I’ve been in it since before Measure 5 [which capped property taxes for school funding], so I have a pretty good sense of the decline of funding in our system and am less surprised when we don’t get delivered the funds we need to do the work. It’s not as shocking as it is for other folks who come from other communities outside of the state and think they’re going to do great things and then they see the budget and go, “Oh my gosh.”
How well is Bethel currently funded?
Bethel’s similarly placed to other school districts in Oregon, so this really would apply pretty broadly. [Former] Gov. Kitzhaber’s budget was pretty low, and that would have meant cuts in our school district and others in Lane County as well. From there it went to the Legislature and they really do set the budget, so it’s the co-chair of the Joint Ways and Means Committee, and they came out with their proposal of $7.235 billion for K-12 schools.
And that could be enough, but only if next year we weren’t all implementing full-day kindergarten. Because we’re implementing that, we need that $7.235 billion just to cover what we’re doing right now plus annual roll-up costs, such as cost-of-living increases for staff members. All those costs go up, and the $7.235 billion pretty much covers that, or it covers full-day kindergarten, but not both. So where we need them to move the budget to is $7.5 billion, which would be even, meaning that what we’re doing this year, we could continue to do next year plus the full-day kindergarten.
So that seems like, “Oh, OK, that’s good.” But where we’re at now is not really that great. Right now we’re 49th in graduation rates across the country. The only place that’s underperforming Oregon is the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C. And we’re 49th in class size. Just to get to average in class size, we’d have to have six fewer kids per class.
We also have one of the shortest schools years in the country, and when you look at our kids in first through 12th grade, the amount of time that they spend in school is about a year less than the national average. The example I like to give, because I think it’s more dramatic, is that if you’re growing up in Portland, Oregon, and your cousin is growing up right across the river in Vancouver, Washington, by the time they graduate from high school, the one in Vancouver has had about a year and a half more school than the kid who grew up in Portland. So they’re coming out with a few more skills, a larger knowledge base than Oregon graduates, and I think those things say that $7.5 billion isn’t really enough. It keeps us where we’re at, and we need to go beyond that.
The number that we’re all asking for and hoping for is $7.875 billion, and that doesn’t get us to the national average. But, if you increase by that amount every two years when the Legislature meets, then in 10 years, we’ll be at the national average. We’d like to say in Oregon that we’re better than average, but right now we’re just struggling to climb the ladder and get up there.
Why is funding still so low?
K-12 education is the most expensive part of the state budget. It used to be all local, but it shifted with Measure 5. It used to be property-tax funded, and now it’s heavily income-tax funded, and that’s controlled by the state government. So, the sort of line that everybody points to that was steady for quite a while was the 2003-05 biennium, and at that point, K-12 schools got about 45 percent of the state budget. Then for 12 straight years it dropped down to about 38 percent of the state budget. This last biennium, they did do a boost and tried to turn it around, and they got it up to 39.7 percent. What’s in the co-chair’s budget right now brings it back down to 39.1 percent.
We really feel like they should continue to allocate the same amount, at least, that they did the previous biennium. If they keep us at 39.7 percent, that will bump us a little bit above that $7.5 billion, and we can begin to reinvest in our kids. The first thing to happen, I think across the state, but definitely in Bethel, is that we get class size reduced and we continue to add school days to the calendar.
How’s the transition to full-day kindergarten going in Bethel?
We’re really excited about that. We’ve had a committee meeting now for over a year and a half, determining all the needs. We’ve worked on everything from the curriculum that needs to be purchased to designing that day. The extra time means everybody gets a little bit more of everything — reading, writing, math, art and constructive playtime. But in kindergarten, you don’t just take your 30-minute reading time and make it an hour and 10 minutes. That’s not going to work. So they’ve designed that schedule so that constructive playtime comes between the heavier academic times. And we’ve been working at making sure we have the classroom space, and we’re all good there.
Where would you like to see the Bethel School District go in the next few years?
I think we’re doing a great job. What I really want to see first is that we bring back just the basic level of service that our kids deserve. We aren’t where we were in 2008, just before the big recession. We aren’t to that class size or length of school year. Most districts still aren’t, but that’s where we need to get to first. You need that base level.
Beyond that, I’m definitely ready to invest in more. I think that we do a fantastic job here of making sure kids have all those basic skills they need. We have a fantastic reading program that gets kids reading early and prepares them for success all through school. It’s time to look at the enhancements. We need more options for students in middle schools so that they can engage more in school and hit their creative side. I’d like to see different kinds of electives in middle schools. We have really nice offerings at both of our high schools, so we’re doing really well, but we need to maintain those and keep the equipment up so we can continue.
This district has always done a great job of keeping music instruction in place, so we have award-winning bands at all levels. I’d like to see the support for kids and families come back, where we have more counselors on staff.
My big dream is that I’d love to see every student in Bethel School District graduate bilingual, like most of the rest of the world outside the United States. I would really like to work toward a K-12 world languages program — that is far from being developed, but if I had my choice of where to invest, that’s the dream, to have Bethel kids come out like kids across the rest of the world. And they’d be really prepared to compete. It just is very enriching to have that experience of knowing another language.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.