Surprise insurance requirement threatens to block some summer learning programs from state money

A requirement that community organizations receiving state summer learning grants have insurance coverage for sexual abuse and molestation claims could keep some from accessing $50 million in aid.

In February, the state Legislature passed another year of record funding for such summer programs, which includes $100 million for school districts and $50 million for programs run by community organizations. Last summer, community groups provided summer learning programs for more than 300,000 students, according to data from the Oregon Community Foundation.

But in March, the Oregon Association of Education Service Districts – in charge of awarding the grants to community groups for programs this summer – learned that it would need to require the groups to buy the additional insurance coverage.

Such insurance is difficult to secure and can be prohibitively expensive, according to Jessica Brenden, program administrator at the service districts association. Brenden anticipates this will dramatically reduce the number of community groups eligible for the summer learning grants, though she is unsure yet whether it will fully derail the programming these groups were hoping to offer.

“I pre-screened 35 of the applications we got,” she said. “None of them had the added insurance.”

The association worked with the state Department of Education for several months to find a solution but last week Colt Gill, director of the department, wrote to the association to say he could not find a way.

“I have disappointing news to share regarding the summer enrichment grants,” he wrote.

“Larger organizations that already carry or can obtain the necessary insurance to protect youth and the organizations will be able to access the summer enrichment funds. However, many smaller organizations will not be eligible this summer.”

Oregon’s school districts have the additional insurance coverage through the Oregon School Boards Association and larger groups such as the YMCA and Boys & Girls Club typically carry such insurance, according to state Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland. But for small community groups, the insurance poses a major challenge.

“It’s a separate insurance, it’s very expensive and insurers don’t want to offer it as a stand-alone policy,” Dembrow said. There is no statute of limitations on sexual abuse and molestation claims in Oregon, making insurers wary to sell such coverage because they’d be liable in perpetuity.

“I have to say I was taken aback,” Dembrow said about learning last week that there was no way to provide these groups insurance through a state agency or another sponsor. State statute bars government agencies from offering insurance to contractors.

Dembrow is chair of the Senate Education Committee, and championed the legislation in February that provided additional money for summer learning programs.

Priority for receiving the grants was supposed to go to groups serving low-income students, students with disabilities and students who had struggled the most during the pandemic years away from school. Many small, community-based organizations do just that.

“I had hoped this would be a way for these students to catch up and get the service they needed,” Dembrow said.

Why this year’s summer grant program is different 

Last year, Dembrow pushed a $200 million package for summer learning programs, including $40 million for community programs.

But last year, the Oregon Community Foundation was the grant distributor. That foundation is a non-profit unaffiliated with any state or government agencies, and it issued the grants as donations.

The Oregon Association of Education Service Districts, this year’s grantor, is a quasi-government agency. Their fiscal agent is the Clackamas Education Service District, a taxpayer funded, public entity. This meant that the Oregon Department of Justice had to review the application process, and found that the additional sexual abuse and molestation insurance would be required.

In an email, Gill wrote that last year “OCF asked grantees if they had insurance, but they did not specify the various types of coverages and amounts required, nor did they require verification of the insurance or criminal background checks for organization staff or volunteers. This practice potentially placed the organizations and, possibly the grantors, at greater risk.”

Brenden at the education districts association said the challenges she now faces in awarding grants are dispiriting. She said even if groups get money to cover the cost, the processing time can take up to six weeks – well into the summer run of programs.

She said that this could mean only several dozen community groups qualify for the summer grants this year, rather than the hundreds who qualified last year.

“It’s heartbreaking. There are kids who are not going to get services because of this rule. These community programs are creative, poised and ready to do this work,” she said.

Planning for next year

Brenden testified at a joint meeting of the House and Senate Education Committees last week about the issues with the insurance requirement. Both Dembrow and Gill said they are working on legislation now that will allow the state to offer insurance to contractors in specific situations such as this, but it wouldn’t be considered until the September session.

Beth Unverzagt is director of Oregon’s Afterschool & Summer for Kids Network, a statewide collaborative that works on policy and partnerships among groups providing after school and summer programs.

She said many community groups are dismayed to learn that this will take money off the table for summer programs they’d already planned, but she’s unaware of any yet that won’t be able to run at all without the money.

“They are disappointed and frustrated,” Unverzagt said. “The biggest problem is that they didn’t know.”

Many found out only last week about the tighter insurance requirements.

Last year, community groups served more than 300,000 Oregon students with the summer grants, according to data from the Oregon Community Foundation.

“This money, last year, it really did make a difference,” Unverzagt said.“There are hundreds of kids who don’t have access to summer programs. The kids in Lake Oswego will always have those opportunities, their parents make sure of it. But there are issues with accessing these programs among low-income kids.”

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