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Editorial: Start with PERS reform to free money for schools

It’s impossible to disagree with the objective expressed Jan. 17 when representatives of every school district in Washington County met with five local legislators to discuss how Oregon can do better by its schoolchildren.

The idea was to come away from the meeting with a united voice, so that the state’s second largest and most economically successful county could wield appropriate influence on lawmakers who will decide how much funding to approve for K-12 public education.

As the Oregon Legislature prepares to work in earnest on the state’s 2013-14 biennial budget, legislators are confronted with a familiar pattern: too little money for schools to continue operating at their current level. Gov. John Kitzhaber has proposed an increase in state funding for schools, but rising costs — particularly for the Public Employees Retirement System — will consume the additional dollars.

As such, the governor’s proposed budget promises more of the same for schools, and possibly even less. As educators discussed at the Jan. 17 meeting, that status quo includes elementary school class sizes in excess of 30 children and high school classes that top 60 students.

Among the suggestions for improving school financing are ideas for increasing state revenues. We are open to some of these proposals, including the possibility of eliminating inequities in Oregon’s property tax system.

Those property-tax disparities give inadvertent tax breaks to people whose homes have artificially low assessed values. As a result, two homeowners with similar houses can pay vastly different levels of property taxes. Fixing that inequity could have the additional effect of boosting overall property tax revenues — one of the funding streams for schools.

New or increased sources of revenue could help schools in the future, but they are not the place to look for immediate relief. We see no hope for the Legislature to address tax reform until it first deals with issues of cost. At the top of the list is PERS, which will become an unsustainable burden for schools and other governments without further tweaks. In the coming biennium, the rising cost of PERS will increase the per-student cost of K-12 education by $500.

To begin to slow the PERS growth rate, Kitzhaber has suggested capping cost-of-living increases for PERS retirees and ending the practice of reimbursing out-of-state retirees for Oregon income taxes that they don’t actually pay. These changes would save $865 million per biennium — with the vast majority coming from the lower cost-of-living increases.

Already, public employee unions are lining up against the COLA proposal. However, neither teachers nor legislators — nor the group of Washington County leaders who met on Jan. 17 — should ignore the direct link between the state of school funding today and the cost of PERS in the future. Curtailing the growth of PERS will put dollars back in the classroom in this very biennium. And that will allow Oregon to begin decreasing class sizes, preventing layoffs and restoring days cut from the school calendar.

When viewed in that light, a legislative vote against PERS reform is also a vote to reduce school funding. It’s an unfortunate choice, but we believe modest changes to PERS — as suggested by Kitzhaber — are an acceptable tradeoff to produce greater support for children in school today.



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