Leaders say $6.06 billion would put schools back at I-Tax levels

Local school leaders say Gov. Ted Kulongoski's proposed budget could put Oregon schools back on track after years of inadequate funding.

'As a starting point, this is a really exciting number,' said Corbett School District Superintendent Bob Dunton of the governor's plan to increase Oregon's K-12 school funding by 14 percent, to $6.06 billion for 2007-08. 'This puts us back on the trajectory, back to where we were in 2002.'

In 2002, school districts in Oregon faced severe budget cuts.

'In 2002, the bottom fell out,' Dunton said.

Multnomah County voters tried to bridge the cuts with a temporary, three-year county income tax. When that tax, known as the I-Tax, expired at the end of last school year, local district administrators grappled with another round of potential program cuts.

'We were already ramping down this year,' said Rick Larson, director of business and operations for the Centennial School District. 'We were facing more than $2 million in cuts one year ago.'

A combination of lottery resources, and funds from Multnomah County and the city of Portland provided some relief for some local districts.

Gresham-Barlow schools, for instance, received an additional $750,000 from the county and $882,000 from unanticipated lottery dollars to help stem the $4 million shortfall they faced after the expiration of the I-Tax.

Still, even with the added revenue, Gresham-Barlow had to cut several after-school and summer school programs.

The governor's new budget, released Monday, Dec. 4, offers about 14 percent more for K-12 schools.

School leaders in Multnomah County say the new funding level should bring them back to where they were during the I-Tax years.

'We expect that this budget will allow us to maintain many of the programs we had during the I-Tax years,' Larson said. 'We are grateful that, for the first time in a couple of bienniums, thing are looking better.'

In prepared statements, Kulongoski said the state's improving economy provides more money for education, health care and other crucial state-run services.

'For the first time in many years, we have the additional resources to restore, improve and expand critical services,' Kulongoski said.

Oregon Schools Superintendent Susan Castillo called the governor's budget 'an opportunity for unprecedented reinvestment.'

'This is the first time education has been above essential budget level in 10 years,' Castillo said. 'And I believe it is an excellent start in the strategic reinvestment in Oregon's K-12 system.'

Dunton agreed that the $6.06 billion figure seems like a very good starting point, but he cautioned that federal and state mandates could take a big bite out of the money.

'The positive impact of this proposed level of funding really could get negated if it coincides with another layer of state and federal mandates,' Dunton said.

For a district the size of Corbett, unfunded mandates for full-day kindergarten or new high school requirements could mean more money than the district can spare.

Corbett, which consistently outranks other Oregon schools with its higher-than-average test scores and number of students taking advanced placement courses, offers all-day kindergarten now, but parents must pay tuition for it. If the state Legislature makes all-day kindergarten mandatory - and chances are good that it will - Corbett would need to hire another teacher.

'The rub is that every dollar buys less if someone else is telling you how it has to be spent,' Dunton said. 'All of your local efficiencies, all of your local creativity, it gets placed inside these limits. You get less bang for your buck when somebody is telling you where your dollars need to go.'

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