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Dont dip into states savings

'Consider the future' was one rallying cry for the more than 5,000 people who gathered on the Capitol steps in Salem Monday to urge the Legislature to protect K-12 public schools from drastic cutbacks.

We agree with the sentiment that the next generation will determine this state's future, but also believe that protecting the future requires legislators to make prudent decisions in the present. And among other things, that means not dipping into savings today that might be needed even more tomorrow.

The financial outlook for Oregon's public schools is highly uncertain at the moment. That makes it all the more difficult for legislators to respond appropriately to legitimate concerns being raised by people who care deeply about public education.

The students, parents, teachers and school board members who traveled to Salem on Monday made many valid points. Despite decades of discussing the issue, Oregon has yet to fully stabilize school funding. Now, this state again is confronted with the likelihood that many of its districts will shorten the school year - this very school year - to make up for immediate shortfalls in state income-tax receipts.

For Portland Public Schools alone, the budget gap for this year is $25 million out of a general fund of $450 million. But the next two school years will bring even worse news, as the full effects of the economic recession hit the state budget.

Huge problem needs multiple answers

The federal economic stimulus package approved in Washington, D.C., this week offers help, but it won't fully shield Oregon and its school districts from excruciating financial choices.

Nonetheless, there are steps being taken - or that should be taken - to minimize the damage to students who are in school today and also preserve a safety net for the future:

• School districts must accelerate their current efforts to reduce spending by June 30. In addition to trimming days from the school calendar, districts must make more permanent reductions - such as leaving vacant positions unfilled or cutting some programs - and carry those savings forward into the 2009-10 school year. Districts also must seek - and receive - union concessions from employee bargaining groups to preserve programs and jobs.

• Legislators for now should resist calls to use state Rainy Day funds. The two funds were created just five years ago and contain more than $730 million. But while the poor economy is causing rain showers in Oregon today, they are nothing compared with the financial downpour that's likely to follow in the next few years when these savings accounts will be even more important.

• Oregon officials must work with their federal counterparts to maximize the benefits of federal money that is coming to this state. U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden's office estimates that $840 million in school-related dollars will be allocated to Oregon during the next two to three years.

However, the strings must be removed from a portion of that money for it to be used for general classroom purposes. Otherwise, school districts would be forced to spend more on federally mandated programs - such as Title I programs in high-poverty schools and special education - while making dramatic cutbacks elsewhere. If the purpose of the federal dollars is to help schools through a crisis, then Oregon's congressional delegation must ensure that the money is available where it is needed.

The thousands of people who rallied in Salem this week are an important reminder that this state still has a long way to go to achieve stability in school financing. That shortcoming deserves full attention, but the Legislature cannot sacrifice pubic education's longer-term health for the illusion of one-year stability.