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Higher Ed cutbacks slammed

Area residents expressed approval of the state's K-12 education outlay but roundly harangued the Legislature's budget-writing Ways and Means Committee Friday night for coming up short on higher education money.

Rep. Mary Nolan, D-Portland, chairwoman of the joint House-Senate body, defended lawmakers' budget-trimming so far, saying the state was finally coming out of its 2001-02 recession and getting spending levels back to where they were — and creating the Shared Responsibility Model that guarantees state help with college tuition after students and parents kick in their fair share.

Rogue Community College President Peter Angstadt launched the hearing at South Medford High School with a broadside against the $329 million for community colleges, down from $458 million proposed by the governor.

"We've made $3 million in cuts this year and we'd have to cut $300,000 more. We're running on four flat tires with one gallon of gas in a 30-gallon tank," said Angstadt, noting there are 700 local jobs waiting to be filled, because of properly educated workers to fill them.

Joe Holliday, vice president for student affairs at Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls, echoed the theme, saying, "Students are struggling with every increase in tuition and fees and the Shared Responsibility Model won't keep costs from rising "¦ Students feel they're paying more but getting less for it."

Southern Oregon University English professor Alma Rosa Alvarez said the best students were leaving the state to pursue higher education — or leaving after getting their first two years of college-level schooling.

A vocal audience of 300 hooted and clapped loudly but were asked to show support only by silently waving their hands, which members did after almost every speaker. Some still hooted over higher education spending or stood for long periods to show support.

The region's business community emphasized that higher education goes far beyond individual self-improvement, but extends to a society's economic health.

"We depend on the success of our universities for economic growth," said Sandra Slattery, executive director of the Ashland Chamber of Commerce. "What we say when we de-fund higher education is: come to college if you can afford it "¦ If business can't find good people to hire, it will get them from out-of-state or move elsewhere."

Bill Thorndike of Medford Fabrication said SOU, OIT and RCC are "tremendous anchors" for the region's economy and shouldn't be restricted at this critical time, when talented workers are any organization's biggest need.

The committee was taking testimony on any part of a proposed $48 billion state budget for the next two years, noting it would not be creating programs or spending that couldn't be sustained in another downturn. Nolan said the budget had increased 20 percent in the last six years, but that didn't mean there was lots of new money available. "oOly now can we provide the same level of services we had in 2001," she said.

Witnesses urged better funding for an array of needs — judges' salaries, Oregon State University extension programs, social workers, drug and alcohol recovery homes, family nutrition programs, child crisis relief nurseries and anti-tobacco education.

Harry & David senior vice president Bob Bluth called for higher judge pay, noting it takes a judge 15 years of experience to handle complex business cases, but by that time they have to move on to better-paying jobs.

A recommended budget carrying the names of Nolan and the other co-chair, Sen. Kurt Schrader, D-Canby, called for K-12 spending of $6.2 billion. It attempts to protects counties against timber payment failures with $50 million for schools and roads. It offers $100 million for affordable housing and $47 million for Shared Responsibility grants, which Nolan said would help students graduate with an average $10,000 in debt, rather than many times that, as is the case now.

Kathleen McNeill, director of the "Success at Southern" program, told the committee that a third of students at SOU meet the criteria for low income students, and the Shared Responsibility program would not be enough to change that.

She told of studies by the Oregon Department of Employment showing there will be 50,000 jobs in the 2004-2014 period, but 90 percent of them require a bachelor's degree. "We can no longer afford to have an Oregon with a small percentage of the population as college graduates. We need to think beyond financial aid and restore the (funding cuts) to regional institutions," McNeill said.

Medford City Councilman Al Densmore, a former legislator, said local people have to be trained.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.