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School funding? The enemy is us

Why are Oregonians surprised? They are the ones who set this house of cards up only to fall.

The patrons of Forest Grove School District were shocked when the superintendent recently announced her proposed cuts for next year.

An award-winning rural elementary school will be closed. Grade school libraries will have to be serviced by volunteers. The middle school will lose art, orchestra and technology programs. The high school will lose a popular ag-tech program, plus auto shop, along with classes in Japanese, German and French. AP classes will be cut back. Golf, tennis and swimming teams will be 'club' sports with no school funding.

What supporters of Forest Grove schools don't seem to understand is that the same agonizing cuts and debate is raging in every one of Oregon's 193 school districts in communities across Oregon. District #15 is not unique.

The crisis here is the symptom of a long-term school funding crisis that has been brewing since the early 1990s. What we are facing is simply the tip of the iceberg, which will emerge next fall as school districts across the state of Oregon will absorb cuts by losing classes, programs, teachers, support staff and class days along with seeing class sizes balloon.

Why are Oregonians surprised? They are the ones who set this house of cards up only to fall. It started with the passage of Measure 5 in 1991 which shifted school funding from a local, property tax based system to a state funded program dependent on the volatile state income tax. With that shift, local schools lost control of their annual operating budgets and put K-12 education on a collision course with other state priorities - human services and public safety - the other big dogs in the state's budget.

Other ballot measures aggravated the problem by embedding property tax limits in the constitution, requiring mandated criminal sentencing and rebating money via the 'kicker' back to taxpayers.

A succession of governors from Tom McCall to Ted Kulongoski have tried to find a solution to Oregon's revenue problem, which is founded on the state's general fund having one primary source of revenue - the income tax. No governor has been successful in moving the ball down the field.

McCall suffered a blow early in his term of office when a tax reform measure he supported was defeated at the polls. He was so devastated that he seriously thought of resigning office. Thankfully, he didn't.

Barbara Roberts had a 'conversion' with Oregonians during her first year in office that ultimately went nowhere. Governors John Kitzhaber and Kulongoski simply kicked the can by setting up task forces that folded their tents as a result of negative polling.

The most likely alternative to get a more balanced tax system would be adding a sales tax. But Oregonians have voted it down nine times. So nobody will go there. This leaves the current Legislature trying to move the personal and corporate kicker revenue into a reserve or 'rainy day' fund with a trade-off of lowering Oregon's capital gains taxes. But nobody in Salem pretends in the current economic climate of the Great Recession, the loss of federal stimulus dollars and a largely 'jobless' recovery that we can fend off drastic cuts in schools and human services.

There is no 'there,' there right now. Facing a $3.5 billion dollar budget deficit in the 2011-2013 biennium, across-the-board cuts are inevitable.

The May economic forecast that came out last week offers no help. We face a $40 million dollar deficit in the current budget year which has to be closed by June 30. And the estimated $130 million increased revenue for 2011-2013 is simply that - estimated. It's not real money and at best could put a blanket over the pain of budget triage that is being played out in Salem by a governor and a legislator asking Oregonians to 'do more with less.'

Susan Nielsen, a columnist for The Oregonian, put it well:

'But I half-wish we'd create the schools of our aspirations and then close them each spring whenever the money ran out. It seems more honest. I'm tired of the pretending - and of the stretching thin necessary to keep schools open until June. I'm tired of agreeing that it's palatable to have one counselor for 700 kids. Or libraries without librarians. Or middle schools without band. Or high schools without vocational programs.'

Until something like that happens, Oregonians will remain in denial and continue to curse the dark.

Russ Dondero is professor emeritus, Department of Politics and Government, Pacific University. Read his blogs at www.russdondero.squarespace.com .