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Pay freezes may limit damage

Our Opinion

The wave of economic woe that first hammered the private sector in the form of foreclosures, layoffs and shuttered storefronts is washing over the public sector and local schools.

While it's too late to halt the slide in government revenue, it is still possible to limit the damage. That's what local school districts and their employee groups must be willing to do. Districts must focus on core education requirements, and teacher and classified union members should agree to forgo raises guaranteed in their contracts and also accept a handful of furlough days without pay.

Such concessions are needed soon.

As detailed in this week's edition of the Portland Tribune, school officials are bracing themselves for deep budget cutbacks for the 2009-10 school year. Just like families, businesses and nonprofit organizations, these tax-supported districts are dependent on the general economy. When incomes and property values decline, the result is fewer tax dollars to support state services - including schools.

Measuring the impact

Portland-area school districts are still awaiting decisions from the Legislature before quantifying what the recession will mean for the next school year. But let's be clear: No agency or school will escape this recession. Actions being contemplated by some districts illustrate just how serious the situation is:

• For Portland Public Schools, the shortfall is projected from a high of $52 million to a low of $33 million - depending on which state budget predictions are used. At the upper end, that would equal 598 positions, or 40 days of school.

• In East Portland's Centennial School District, the reduction will be $8.9 million to $12 million out of an operating budget of $65 million. At a minimum, that means the loss of about 60 teachers and 16 classified jobs.

• In East Multnomah County's Reynolds School District, administrators are expecting to cut at least $15 million of the district's approximately $100 million operating budget - which would result in about 130 teaching positions disappearing.

• For the Tigard-Tualatin School District, the worst-case scenario calls for a reduction of $11.1 million and the elimination of 100 teaching jobs and 58 non-teaching positions.

Regionwide, school cutbacks represent hundreds of jobs and tens of millions of payroll dollars that could evaporate from the Portland-area economy. But they also would bring crowded classrooms and lost opportunities for learning.

Sacrifices needed to restore jobs

Some of these negative effects can yet be avoided. But it will require sacrifices from public employee unions and school administrative employees.

Many of the jobs about to be lost in our schools can be maintained if unions agree to freeze their wages for at least the coming year. To take just one example, in the Centennial district, a freeze in both the cost-of-living adjustment and the annual experience-level increase for employees would save $2.5 million. That's enough to keep 31 teachers from being cut.

Multiply that effect throughout the region and the value of such concessions is immense.

By now, many people in the private sector already have taken a hit in their compensation due to this recession. They have had salaries frozen or reduced. They have taken forced furloughs. Working hours have been slashed.

Unionized public employees hold it in their power to keep the situation from growing even worse by agreeing to keep their wages at current levels - and by being open to even more concessions if needed.

By doing so, they will increase the chance that schools, district employees and students can navigate through these difficult economic times.