Sharing the pain

Medford School Superintendent Phil Long and the district's principals deserve credit for agreeing to a smaller salary increase and a freeze on Long's salary in the face of a state revenue shortfall. The teachers union should take note and prepare its members to settle for less than they might want out of the current contract negotiations.

Of course, the move doesn't solve the district's financial situation. It saves only about $60,000. It's a symbolic gesture. It's a good start.

But the cuts the School Board is now making are only the beginning of lean times for schools here and across the state.

The Medford district cut $1.4 million in the past month after Gov. Ted Kulongoski in December ordered schools and other state agencies to trim $142 million because state revenues were falling below expectations. But the state economist announced last week that the shortfall could grow to $650 million just for the last five months of this fiscal year.

It's possible the next revenue forecast, due Feb. 20, will show an even bigger hole — as much as $1 billion. And that's just to get the budget balanced by June 30.

What happens after that is up to the 2009 Legislature, which must adopt a budget for the next two years.

It's time for the state government — and public employees — to get as serious about this recession as the private sector already has.

Layoffs, the governor's office said Tuesday, aren't the answer, because it would take 7,000 layoffs to save $100 million. Kulongoski has asked for an eight-day unpaid furlough for state workers in the next budget, and stopped cost-of-living raises for agency heads. But he hasn't suggested reopening union contracts to discuss pay cuts.

Here's a bit of news for the governor, the state employee unions and the teachers union: private-sector workers have already seen wage freezes, cuts and reduced hours — if they still have jobs at all. Layoffs have been the rule, not the exception. Many companies have gone out of business altogether.

That's not an option for the state; children must be educated, vital state services must be provided. But certainly, wage freezes and even pay and benefit cuts cannot be ruled out when the outlook is this dismal.

There will be plenty of pain to go around by the time Oregon and the nation climb out of the downturn now under way. Public employees must be prepared to endure some of it.

If they need consolation, they can adopt the attitude of many private-sector workers: Happy about wage freezes and benefit cuts? No. Just happy to be employed.

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