News for those who live, work and play in the Santiam Canyon

SCSD to be financially stable during wildfire recovery

Reporter for The Canyon Weekly

As local students prepare for summer break, the Santiam Canyon School District is looking forward to a new school year that feels a little more normal.

Though there is still much to rebuild after the 2020 fires, and continuing fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, SCSD at least won’t have to worry about steep budget cuts due to drops in enrollment thanks to a recently-passed state bill that provides grants for districts hit by wildfires.

Superintendent Todd Miller said access to the grants will help the district avoid a $700,000 deficit in next year’s budget caused by a 12 percent loss in enrollment following the Santiam Fire.

“In a small town, where the school is the hub of the community, this bill prevented the next potential tragedy to hit our community,” said Miller. “For those who lost everything, our schools can remain a stable place for them.”

House Bill 4026 was introduced during the Oregon Legislature’s short session earlier this year and was approved with unanimous support. A similar bill was introduced in 2021, but Miller said it died in committee for reasons that have not been made clear.

“We are very grateful to the legislators and to our governor who supported our bill and voted in favor of it,” said Miller, specifically thanking local Senator Fred Girod (R-Stayton), who co-sponsored the bill.

HB 4026 established a $25 million fund for districts to apply for grant assistance if they lost school buildings and/or residences during the 2020 wildfire season. 

The Santiam Fire destroyed over 700 homes, and damaged dozens more, and it is estimated that only 100 families displaced by the fires have since found permanent housing.

Because SCSD is more than qualified for funding, they can apply to the state when enrollment drops below pre-fire numbers from the 2019-2020 school year. This essentially freezes enrollment (as calculated by the state for revenue purposes) through the 2024-2025 school year, which Miller said keeps the district from having to slash programs or eliminate positions for the next three years.

“We can keep the core and enriching programs our students need to be successful and fulfilled at school,” said Miller.

Also eligible for funding are the McKenzie School District, struck by the Holiday Farm Fire, and the Phoenix-Talent School District, struck by the Almeda Fire. 

Miller said he worked closely with leaders from these districts to lobby in favor of HB 4026 and they have since become close-knit. He said, if it had not been for their collective efforts, legislators may not have been aware of the looming crisis of student displacement.

Also playing a central role in the bill’s passage was former SCSD Board Chair Rich Moore, who stepped down in April after nine years in office. 

Moore said he was glad to leave the district on solid financial footing as the area continues to rebuild.

“I think the area’s going to recover,” he said. “I feel good about where we’re at.”

Moore added that the tragedies of recent years have shown the strength and unity of local residents and fellow districts.

“Through this horrible event, we have really seen the good in people and the generosity that exists in this world,” he said. 

“We have also formed deep bonds with other communities around the state who share similar wildfire stories with us and walked this journey alongside us.”

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