Lawmakers set aside $20 million for schools affected by wildfires

Oregon lawmakers have set aside $20 million to help schools damaged in the Labor Day wildfires.

The action Monday, Oct. 12, by the legislative Emergency Board will enable the Department of Education to aid up to 33 school districts, three education service districts and a public charter school. The districts will have to furnish estimates to the agency, which then will report back to lawmakers about how much needs to be drawn from the state emergency fund.

The districts likely to be hardest hit are Santiam Canyon, McKenzie and Phoenix-Talent. All of them have set up relief funds to help families affected by the Beachie Creek, Holiday Farm and Almeda wildfires.

Todd Miller, the Santiam Canyon superintendent, said the wildfires resulted in smoke damage he estimates at $2.5 million.

“I have teams ready to start cleaning,” Miller told U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley on their Sept. 26 visit to Gates and Mill City. “I do not have an answer to who pays for it.”

Most of the buildings at the former Gates Elementary School, which the district sold in 2014 after moving the school to Mill City, were destroyed in the fire. But the historic 1927 building survived.

State money could be loaned to districts for cleanup costs until they get reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But reimbursement could take months, even years, and FEMA requires a 25% local match.

State money also could be spent on reopening schools that have been closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Schools can serve as a gathering place for students without homes or without the broadband communications they need for distance learning.

Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod, whose house in Lyons was destroyed in the fires, was among the lawmakers who voted for the set-aside.

“When these schools are cleaned of smoke and safety hazards, the schools and their educators provide more than education; they are safe spaces for students who experienced trauma during the fires,” Girod said in a statement after the vote. “These school districts lacked insurance coverage to tackle wildfire and smoke damage, and the $20 million available for financial assistance will help reopen their doors.”

The Legislative Fiscal Office, which does budget analyses for lawmakers, recommended that the agency assess the cost of wildfire damages before the board approves the $20 million outright. Its report concludes:

“This sends the message to districts that the Legislature, through the Emergency Board, supports and anticipates addressing the issue, but will wait a short period until sufficient information still outstanding is collected and assessed to determine the proper mix of finance alternatives.”

In a separate action, lawmakers heard a report on how $1.6 million in federal funds were spent on extra pandemic-related expenses of county elections officials. Twenty-eight of Oregon’s 36 counties, including the three Portland area counties, received money for expenses related to the May 19 primary and Nov. 3 general election.

All but $100,000 of the money came from the counties’ share of $1.4 billion Oregon received in state aid from the federal CARES Act. The other $100,000 went to the state Elections Division, and that amount was not charged to the counties.

Multnomah County got a total of $524,979 for a new extraction desk that automatically opens the ballot envelopes returned by voters, an image scanner, changes in election facilities and voter education. Clackamas County got $124,082 for personal protective equipment and upgraded hardware and Washington County got $19,324 for personal protective equipment and laptop computers.

The Emergency Board plans to hear a report, possibly on Oct. 19, on how Oregon has spent the $1.4 billion in federal aid from the CARES Act that was signed by President Donald Trump on March 27. The state must spend the money by Dec. 31.