Schools will take hit when budget passes

SALEM — Area lawmakers said they expect a joint Senate-House proposal rebalancing the state's budget to pass through the Legislature this week, leaving schools to absorb $54 million in cuts.

A previous proposal had the school system taking the hit for nearly $170 million of the more than $850 million budget shortfall.

Some schools anticipated having to trim more than a week of school days to finish the year within their budgets, but the infusion of cash from the federal stimulus and the rebalanced budget should limit the cuts to an average of two to three days, said Sen. Alan Bates, D-Ashland.

Legislators had contemplated using rainy-day funds to help schools finish the year intact, but will forego that option now that President Barack Obama's federal stimulus passed through Congress.

Schools officials around the state, however, continue to pressure the Legislature to release some of the rainy-day funds, which would allow them to finish the school year without disturbance.

To this point, Gov. Ted Kulongoski and the Legislature have resisted pressure to use the reserves, knowing darker days are ahead.

"The shortfall in 2009-11 is bigger than the shortfall we've got here," Bates said. "We may have to (use rainy-day funds) in May. We may have to put more money in again, because the revenue shortfall even in the next 90 days may get worse."

State Economist Tom Potiowsky recently said the Oregon budget deficit has grown to $850 million for the current biennium, which ends June 30. The shortfall is projected to reach nearly $3 billion for 2009-11.

The crumbling economy has forced Bates and his colleagues to make difficult decisions as they try to fill as many outstretched hands as they can, despite lacking the resources to keep schools and other organizations running at capacity.

"There will be some cuts here, but it's not the end of the world," Bates said.

The bill expected to pass this week will cut $300 million from agencies across state government, takes $80 million from reserves to fund state agencies, and applies the federal stimulus funds. The package, which was approved by the Joint Ways and Means Committee Friday, will come close to alleviating the state's more than $850 million deficit.

"To my mind, it doesn't matter which pot of money we use this year — the state reserves or the federal stimulus," said Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. "Whatever we use, we will need to use the other pot in 2009-11."

Buckley said the Legislature's rebalanced budget will allow two-thirds of school districts to finish the year without cutting additional days.

"The strategic cuts we are making at present keep our Headstart programs going throughout this year, maintain RCC and SOU schedules for the spring term, and protect the most vulnerable Oregonians," Buckley said. "We are facing this crisis directly, and have a great deal of work still ahead."

Support for saving the rainy-day funds for the next biennium stretches across the aisle.

"I really believe most schools can cover this cut and still not reduce instructional days," said Rep. George Gilman, R-Medford.

While the stimulus funds will help the state overcome the present deficit, state finances are expected to deteriorate further before the economy bounces back.

"We've got people in our community losing their jobs," Bates said. "They're losing everything. They're going to lose their homes. They're going to lose their cars. That's who I hear from every single day."

Maintaining the state's school system is among government's top priorities, but schools are not the Legislature's sole concern, he said.

"I know we've got to maintain it," Bates said. "But I have a little difficulty in people who are taking paycuts because their school system is being shortened a little bit, while others are without jobs at all. It's painful for everybody."

Bob Albrecht is a freelance writer living in Eugene. Reach him at

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