By Jeff Cogen of Portland, Oregon. Jeff is the chief of staff to city commissioner Dan Saltzman, and a candidate for Multnomah County Commission. Learn more at JeffCogen.org.
In early July, I spent a morning at the SUN Community School program in Northeast Portland's Shaver Elementary School. I watched as Sara Vank, the irrepressible SUN School coordinator at Shaver engaged the large group of overwhelmingly poor, astonishingly diverse kids in a range of fun, educational activities. The mood in the room was upbeat and energized -- an amazing contrast to the stories Sara told me about these kids. Some of their peers were being recruited into gangs in fifth grade. Others had siblings involved in dealing drugs. The key difference for these kids -- the reason they're on a path to success instead of ruin -- is the support and guidance they got from the SUN program.
Over the past two months there has been a fierce battle over the fate of SUN Schools, our community's nationally recognized after-school program. SUN Schools are facing a huge budget cut from Multnomah County that threatens to seriously damage something truly rare: a cost-effective public-private partnership that enjoys broad community support. Not only that, SUN Schools provide young people with a safe place to be after school while boosting their academic and social success.
The proposed budget cuts come shortly after an independent evaluation showed that the kids in SUN Schools are thriving. Why would we slash something that gives our community such positive, proven benefits?
Granted, the County is facing a difficult budget climate and Commissioners faced tough choices. Does that mean the cuts were inevitable... forced on the County by relentless budget pressure? Well, no.
In fact, due to our resurgent economy the County had $47 million in unexpected revenue it could have used to keep the SUN Schools going, at least for another year. This would have allowed time for a thoughtful conversation with the many partners that make up the SUN Schools -- including the City of Portland, local school districts, non-profits and local businesses -- regarding how best to move forward with SUN.
The County chose not to spend its money to fully fund SUN Schools, and instead slashed is budget by $1.7 million, with only a few weeks to implement those cuts and no time to work collaboratively with its partners. That was a mistake. This hurts not only the kids served by SUN Schools, but the non-profits who partnered with the County to run these programs, who now face tremendous hardship and budgetary uncertainty while the County scrambles to figure out how to make these cuts.
But, the good news is that there is still time to change this decision. The program is reporting back to the County Board this Thursday to present options for moving forward. The County should reject cuts to the system and instead seek creative ways to keep the doors open. And there are at least 3 good options available for saving the SUN Schools:
1) Use half of the new 'BIT' stabilization fund
Maintaining adequate reserves is prudent. But this year, in addition to boosting the $17 million already allocated to contingencies and reserves (which was enough to retain the County's AAA bond rating) by $10 million more, the County also created a brand new 'stabilization' fund with $3.5 million. Half of the money from this extra reserve fund would be enough to fully fund SUN Schools - while maintaining just shy of $30 million in reserves/contingency funds.
2) Charge people who can afford to pay for SUN programs
A few SUN programs charge fees to those who can afford to pay, but most do not. By expanding the use of sliding-scale charges for SUN programs, we can raise revenue to help ensure the survival of SUN Schools, while allowing those in need to maintain access to the programs.
3) Get a bridge loan from the Children's Investment Fund
The Children's Investment Fund is one of the community partners that funds SUN Schools. Due to higher than expected tax receipts, and careful cost controls, the CHIF has resources available that it could loan to the County to fund SUN Schools.
Clearly, we have the means to save the SUN Schools. The real question here is whether we have the collective will to insist that our best social investments -- such as SUN Schools -- be protected. I've always admired our community's ability to make smart investments and focus on long-term benefits and solutions. The SUN Schools program fits perfectly in this paradigm, and it deserves our support.