Oregon’s wildfire-impacted schools get a leg up from the legislature

MILL CITY, Ore. (KGW) — School districts in Oregon communities hit by wildfire in 2020 have been hanging on to hope that state lawmakers would shore up funding to help fire-affected districts.

When wildfires broke out in 2020, it was devastating for many people who lost homes and businesses. As families relocated, school districts in areas heavily impacted also prepared for a hit.

“When you have communities that burned down and homes that burned down, you lose families and you lose students. Therefore you also lose enrollment, which means loss of funding,” said Todd Miller, superintendent of the Santiam Canyon School District.

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Miller said that right after the 2020 wildfires, about 72 students — or 12% — left the district. Miller said that number has remained steady.

For such a small, rural district, losing 72 students out of the pre-fire 596 equated to hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding.

“But then this year, House Bill 4026 went through the 2022 legislature with full 100% bipartisan support,” Miller said.

The bill, signed into law by Governor Kate Brown last week, adjusts enrollment numbers to what they were before the wildfires.

RELATED: School districts in Oregon’s fire-ravaged communities hope lawmakers pass bill to protect funding

“It doesn’t give us additional funding. It just holds us to the level where we were of kids prior to [the fire], which allows us to continue to provide supports of transportation to kids who are out of our community, additional counseling and mental health supports, and all those things that we need to do to support these kids and what they’ve been through,” said Miller

Right now, Miller said the district still buses kids in from surrounding areas like Lebanon, Salem, and elsewhere. Their families are still displaced due to the wildfire, but still want to attend school in the district.

Miller said also said now that pre-fire enrollment numbers will be used to dictate funding, the Santiam Canyon School District won’t lose out on about $730,000 in state dollars and grants. His district, and others affected by wildfire, will be able to keep much needed services for students and families.

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“Without it, it would have had devastating consequences for our community. But with it, it also becomes the catalyst to help rebuild the community. So, it really is for us, Phoenix-Talent, McKenzie, and Lincoln County … it’s huge,” said Miller.

He said the bill is retroactive and will help districts starting at the beginning of this school year and extending for another three school years.

“I can’t thank legislators enough for their support,” Miller said.

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