Voters sent a message in superintendent race

In what was otherwise a lackluster primary season, Oregon voters produced one surprise: Ron Maurer, a little-known state representative from Grants Pass, nearly took down two-term Superintendent of Public Instruction Susan Castillo. There is an outside chance Maurer still could force Castillo into a runoff in November.

There are lessons to be learned from this race.

For the Oregon Republican Party, the lesson is that the GOP could have had one of its own occupying a statewide office — albeit a nonpartisan one — with just a little more help to the candidate.

For Castillo, the lesson is that many voters clearly are not satisfied with business as usual in the Department of Education. Maurer not only came close to unseating her on election night, he was leading in 26 of Oregon's 36 counties.

Being Oregon's state schools chief can be a frustrating job. The state controls the purse strings for public schools, but the Legislature — not the superintendent — calls the shots. Local districts have far more autonomy over how money is spent than in many other states, a legacy of the time before the property tax limitation measures of the 1990s, when school funding also was mostly local.

Maurer told voters he wanted to see schools use the resources they have more efficiently, and shift the role of the Department of Education from a regulatory agency to one that collaborates more with local districts.

Castillo, who enjoys the support of the state's teachers unions, continued to call for more funding for education, despite the reality that Oregon's finances are stretched to the limit now and are likely to get worse in the next budget cycle.

A report released Thursday from a task force appointed by Gov. Ted Kulongoski says Oregon will face a decade of multibillion-dollar deficits if state spending is not controlled, even if the economy fully recovers. That does not bode well for public education, which consumes nearly half of the state general fund.

The race was still too close to call last week, with thousands of ballots uncounted. To win outright, Castillo must garner 50 percent plus one vote. If she fails to do that because of write-in votes, the two candidates will appear on the November ballot in a runoff.

It appears likely that Castillo will eke out the win. But she should not take that as a vote of confidence from Oregonians. She should consider it a wake-up call.

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