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Oregon Lottery may give $42 million in excess funds to schools

Apr 14, 2006, 8:42 am

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Oregon Lottery

Gathered around a podium at Benson High School in Portland on Wednesday, key Republicans and Democrats alike proclaimed that a new day was dawning for Oregon schools.

With the blessing of House Speaker Karen Minnis, R-Wood Village, and Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, legislators are poised to approve handing over $42 million in unexpected lottery revenue to public schools during next week's special session.

If approved, it would be the first time in years the state has announced a mid-biennium bonus — instead of a cutback — in school funding.

And Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski, who is running for re-election, told reporters that his December budget recommendations would include $6 billion for public schools in the 2007-09 biennium, up $775 million from current funding levels and about $115 million more than Kulongoski had previously suggested he would recommend.

Legislators still have to sign off next week on the $42 million appropriation, and the $6 billion figure could face resistance in the 2007 Legislature, even if voters reward Kulongoski with another four years. Some lawmakers maintain that schools must manage the money they are given more efficiently and the lottery windfall should be socked away in a rainy-day fund.

Schools advocates, meanwhile, note that $42 million won't make up for the teacher layoffs and program cutbacks caused by the state's 2001-03 recession.

The lottery money works out to about $63 per student, since the state doles out money on a per-pupil basis. That means Portland, a large district, is due for an extra $3.4 million, while midsize Pendleton will get $240,895 and tiny Burnt River, in Baker County, will receive $10,714.

At Wednesday's forum, a handful of superintendents from across the state welcomed the news of the extra $42 million, which comes just as local school boards are meeting to consider their budgets for the 2005-06 school year.

Ron Naso, from the North Clackamas school district, said the $1.2 million his district will receive will allow it to reduce elementary school class sizes by one, to a ratio of 25 students per teacher.

But Naso also reminded the roomful of politicians that in his view, the $42 million was "just the beginning of the road back," and deemed state school funding over the past several years "insufficient."

Kulongoski's $6 billion floater drew mixed reactions, too. Otto Schell, a volunteer lobbyist for the Oregon PTA, praised the governor for aiming high. Kathryn Firestone, who leads a group that has filed a lawsuit contending that the state has failed to live up to its education quality goals, said the $6 billion figure was "a step in the right direction."

But, she pointed out, according to the state's own reckoning, it would cost at least $7.1 billion in the current two-year cycle to get 90 percent of the state's students meeting Oregon standards on reading and math tests.

Rep. Linda Flores, R-Clackamas, who chaired the House Education Committee during the 2005 session and has been a firm advocate for districts learning to live within their budgets, also sounded guarded about the $6 billion figure.

"A lot of that is going to depend on where the economy is, and what schools demonstrate to us as far as their willingness to do their business better," she said.

Statistics provide ammunition both for those who say schools need more, and those who disagree. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Oregon's per-pupil student funding, at an average of $7,619, was below the national average of $8,287 in 2003-04, the latest year for which funding is available. Many of the states where students traditionally top the testing charts are well above Oregon, including Massachusetts and Minnesota.

But the state's schools also spend an average of $17,684 per full-time staff member in benefits, the highest in the nation by a wide margin, according to a study done by EcoNorthwest, an independent Portland consulting firm.

The special session has been called for April 20-21. Lawmakers are also expected to tackle the Department of Human Services' $136 million budget gap, caused by higher-than-expected caseloads, and may also chose to consider a handful of other issues making waves this election season, including regulation of the payday loan industry and a law requiring prison terms for adults who rape or commit other sexual abuse against children under the age of 12.

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