Gov. Ted Kulongoski sounded a bit naive last week when he suggested that Oregon teachers work four days for free so that public school districts - which won't receive enough money from the state to pay for a full school year - won't have to cut days from the school calendar ending in June.
Perhaps the governor deserves credit for boldness or attempted creativity. But he ought to have known that asking unionized employees to work without pay would be an impractical solution to the very real budget crisis facing schools this year.
But even if his idea of having teachers donate their time was a nonstarter, Kulongoski succeeded, rather clumsily, in raising a critical question: How can Oregon avoid sacrificing student learning as our schools are forced to make budget reductions?
By presenting that question, the governor helped trigger renewed legislative efforts this week to find additional money to protect K-12 education. Lawmakers on Tuesday proposed a plan to allocate federal stimulus dollars to schools and reduce - but not eliminate - cuts for this school year.
Oregon has been here before
This is not uncharted territory. When the last recession hit in 2002 and 2003, the state also saw its tax receipts decline mightily in mid-biennium. The result was reduced funding to schools districts, many of which reacted by lopping off teaching days and lowering the opportunity for students to learn.
Oregon is back in roughly the same position, with an even more severe economic downturn taking huge bites out of state tax revenue. Between now and the end of the school year, Oregon's public school districts must cut millions of dollars - $55 million under the latest plan - from what they had expected to receive in state revenue.
We agree with the governor that reducing days ought to be the last alternative. But we don't think teachers, most of whom put in many extra, unpaid days already, are likely to buy off on a formalized work-for-free program. That doesn't mean, however, that teacher concessions are not required as districts individually grapple with an exceedingly difficult budget situation.
Even under the Legislature's latest, less draconian, budget plan, a number of measures must be taken to shore up the school year. And the need for action on multiple fronts only will intensify as lawmakers begin to consider their budget choices for the next biennium, when revenue will be short by $3 billion or more.
Worst is still to come
In dealing with the immediate budget shortfall, legislators are asking school districts to examine their local cash reserves and determine whether it is prudent to spend a small portion of those reserves to retain a full school calendar. In Multnomah County, some districts, such as David Douglas, have substantial reserves, while others, such as Reynolds, have none. The majority, including Portland Public Schools, fall somewhere in between.
Once they have evaluated the degree to which they might tap reserves, school districts must approach their unions to request financial concessions for this year and additional concessions for the even worse budget years to follow.
The goal should be clear, single-minded and unanimously agreed upon by everyone, including legislators, taxpayers, school boards and unions representing teachers and other staff. That goal must be to maintain the maximum number of school days possible. If days have to be cut, the first to go should be in-service days, parent-teacher conference days and the like - days when teachers are working, but students are at home.
Oregon's schools are headed into the roughest budget years they have experienced. And the next biennium will require cutbacks that will make this year's reductions seem tiny.
Yet, Oregon's children still deserve the best education that the state can manage to afford in this crisis - and there's no way to deliver such an education unless classroom doors are kept open.