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Budget presents difficult choices

Our Opinion

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber's proposed budget for K-12 education, which was released Tuesday, isn't all that it seems. It's true that, when viewed as one large number, the $2.9 billion Kitzhaber would allocate to public schools for the 2011-12 school year appears reasonable. This amount is, after all, approximately the same funding the state provided to school districts in this school year.

However, citizens and their legislators have to look well beyond the state's proposed $2.9 billion general fund allocation before arriving at a conclusion about the adequacy of this funding level. This budget, if adopted by the 2011 Legislature, would in fact present the Portland area's school districts with the same difficult choices they've faced in the past two budget years.

Here are some reasons that's the case:

• While state funding would remain stable in 2011-12, local districts will lose millions of dollars in federal stimulus money that they previously used to backfill state funding shortfalls.

• Flat state funding also will fall shy of what districts need to cover rising costs that cannot be avoided. Chief among these is a 35-percent increase in what districts have to pay to the state Public Employees Retirement System. People can debate whether PERS is too rich of a plan, but that won't change the existing obligations that local governments have to maintain the system.

• The $2.9 billion that Kitzhaber proposes for the coming school year is achieved only through creative budgeting. The governor actually is proposing a $5.56 billion, two-year K-12 school budget - which is down from $5.8 billion in the current biennium. However, he wants to spend more than half - $2.9 billion - in the first year of the biennium to give districts time to figure out how to cut expenses, save money and require less the following year. The practical effect of this maneuver is to force districts to shelter some first-year funds to operate schools in the following year.

Cut days, teachers or programs?

When these and other factors are considered, it's obvious that Kitzhaber's proposed school budget would represent a cut - in real dollars - from what school districts receive. That reduction comes on top of actual cuts in the previous two years that have left local districts with hundreds fewer teaching positions, larger class sizes and reduced programs.

We point this out not because we disagree with the governor's approach to allocating diminishing resources. There are many things in his overall proposed budget for the 2011-13 biennium that we applaud - including an emphasis on preventing problems that will cost the state even more money in the future.

But as it pertains to K-12 funding, local school boards, superintendents, unions, students and parents must deal with this reality: Money will be tighter once again and the options for closing the budget gap are becoming increasingly difficult. To save money, metro-area districts can lay off more teachers, resulting in larger class sizes. They can again cut days from the school calendar. They can seek further concessions from employees. Or they can continue to eliminate entire programs and close schools.

In some districts - particularly Portland Public Schools - there's the very real possibility of asking voters to approve higher property taxes to mitigate the effects of these cuts. That's what a School Board committee proposed Tuesday night when it voted to send an expanded, $57 million local-option levy to the ballot in May - a levy that could save hundreds of teacher jobs even as the district is still forced to shrink its budget.

It's possible the Legislature can find ways to incrementally improve upon what Kitzhaber is proposing for schools. But lawmakers can only go so far without taking dollars away from other needed services.

As it stands, the governor's proposed K-12 budget sets the framework for difficult choices in Salem and within every school community about what is essential education and what is expendable. His budget is also a call to action for this state, its citizens and elected leaders to end this downward spiral of crisis financial management that threatens Oregon's future.