Schools prepare for additional budget cuts

The May 21 defeat of Ballot Measure 13 and budget shortfalls have forced school districts throughout the state to scramble to find cuts in budgets.

The state’s 2002-03 budget shortfall “is so close to $900 million and could easily reach $1 billion,” said Senator Peter Courtney (D-Salem/Woodburn). “This is a tsunami ... there are no warning signs, no sirens, no red lights and I do not see any birds leaving the trees ... and we still have legislators in denial,” said the senator. “I have never seen so many in the legislature in denial, in disbelief ... we have a paralysis.

“We are in a legislative cross fire, we are pinned down by this ambush ... this came out of nowhere ... how did it happen?” said Courtney, asking for help from his colleagues and Oregonians.

Said Jerry Sessions, superintendent of Hood River County schools, “We can’t continually readjust the budget donwward all the time.”

“We did not count on Measure 13 passing (in the proposed 2002-03 budget), but that was $250,000 we could have put back in the budget. What we didn’t anticipate was the state shortfall getting worse, so now we have to see what those figures mean. We put a little extra into the budget, $250,000 in land acquisition, and we’ll be looking at using that instead of cutting staff and programs,” Sessions said.

Sessions will be present in Salem Friday for a meeting of school superintendents to review the latest information on budget numbers. Gov. Kitzhaber is scheduled to present his proposed budget today.

“If the governor goes with an all-cuts budget, that’s different than one with new revenue,” Sessions said.

The Hood River school board will meet June 11. Depending on budget projections, the board could call the district budget committee back again to make cuts, or the board could make the cuts themselves, according to Sessions.

“If we have to make further cuts, we’ll look at the reserves and try not to cut any more staff or programs,” Sessions said. “If that doesn’t work admin team make recommendations to the board on June 11, and that gives them time to talk about it before June 26.”

On June 26, the board and budget committee will hold an open hearing on the budget, at which point it will be adopted by the board.

In June members of the Oregon Legislature will go into special session faced with the biggest funding crisis since the 37-day special session in 1982. Since the last special session, in March of this year, the governor has cut $80 million from the rebalanced budget (including some senior programs), the federal economic stimulation program cut Oregon revenues by $124 million.

The defeat of Ballot Measure 13 eliminated $220 million of the legislature’s March re-balancing program and the June income and capitol gains tax forecast is now expected to drop $450-$500 million from the March forecast. At a minimum, that all adds up to $874 million on the low end and reported increases in the cost of human services are said to be included in this week’s figure. Courtney, Governor Kitzhaber, Senate President Gene Derfler (R-Salem), Senate Democratic Leader Kate Brown (D-Portland) and Ways and Means Chair Lenn Hannon (R-Ashland) have had informal discussions this week to discuss a solution.

“We are being asked by the Portland Chamber of Commerce for solid numbers and they seem to climb every day!” said the senator. “They are asking for answers from Lenn and Peter and so are my school districts.”

Courtney and Hannon were the lead negotiators in the last two special sessions for balancing the state’s budget without new taxes, out of balance due to the recession and resulting reduction in income tax collection. Until May 14, they had been working on a bi-partisan balancing package for the June special session, the third special session since the 2001 Oregon Legislative regular session.

“The gap in funding is so great that it boggles the mind ... there is still denial and disbelief by some,” Courtney said. Budget cuts could easily require another two percent cut for K-12 education and more for other state departments. Revenue inhancements considered during the two last special sessions, earlier this year, were an increase in the cigarette tax, an increase in the beer and wine tax and delay of the November legislative referred ballot Measure 88.

Measure 88 would allow Oregonians to deduct up to $5,000 in paid federal personal income taxes annually, an increase of $2,000 from the present capped limit of $3,000. There is some discussion of having a special legislative session delay the measure for two years. That benefit goes to upper-middle and high paid Oregonians.

— John Gervais, Woodburn Independent, contributed to this article.

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