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Bipartisan budget plan gives more to schools

Oregon's education system would get a boost under a bipartisan budget proposal unveiled by two Southern Oregon legislators Tuesday.

Education would receive $5.7 billion under the Joint Ways and Means Committee budget, more than $100 million higher than Gov. John Kitzhaber suggested in January.

The latest budget plan is still more than $1 billion less than what schools say they need to maintain current service levels and won't prevent layoffs.

But Rep. Peter Buckley, an Ashland Democrat and co-chairman of the committee with Central Point Republican Rep. Dennis Richardson, said the extra $100 million would save the equivalent of more than 1,000 teachers.

"We've done our best to protect K-12," he said.

Buckley and Richardson share chairmanship of the powerful budget-writing committee with Sen. Richard Devlin, a Tualatin Democrat.

They wrestled with a $3.5 billion budget gap because revenues are projected to be less than the amount needed to maintain current service levels at government departments.

The legislators have come up with a hybrid $14.7 billion biennial budget that creates a $310 million ending fund balance for 2011-12. To create that balance, every state department except education would have to plan for revenues in 2012-13 equal to only 93 percent of what it received in 2011-12.

The ending balance might evaporate by next year if state revenue forecasts fall short. If revenue projections are on target, the ending balance could be used to fully fund other departments.

The co-chairmen recommend tapping into $100 million in savings from the Education Stability Fund along with $23 million from another education fund to boost spending on schools above Kitzhaber's proposal.

"We can't create more money," Richardson said. "So what we tried to do is give certainty and stability to the 197 school districts and the superintendents that have to come up with budgets."

In addition, the legislators have asked the Legislature to adopt the K-12 budget by mid-April to give schools time to prepare their own budgets, which might include shorter school years.

"K-12 is being favored in this budget," Richardson said. "There is no question about that."

Education groups said they're hoping for up to another $145 million that would put education spending at about 40 percent of total spending.

Richardson said he pushed for a budget that would account for the possibility that state revenue projections could be wrong. He noted that revenue projections haven't been on target for the past two years.

Richardson said the budget plan is a compromise that he thinks doesn't go far enough in anticipating further declines in the state economy.

"When you've got three co-chairs and each has drastically different viewpoints, then you've got to compromise," he said. "It's as much as we could agree to."

Richardson said the Legislature also should address larger concerns such as reforming education and making real changes to teachers' performance and merit pay.

In addition, he said schools should develop a more seamless process of preparing students to transfer from high school to colleges and universities.

"It's a mistake to define success in education by how much you spend on it," he said.

Buckley said the most difficult agreement to reach was on how much money to set aside for the ending fund balance.

He said he sees some positive signs that could indicate Oregon is pulling out of the recession, including slightly better projections of job growth. He said one possible red flag is oil prices, which could dampen recovery.

If the economy continues to improve, Buckley said the $310 million could be plugged back into the budget to help fund state agencies.

However, if revenues drop below $310 million, Buckley said the Legislature would have to look at more cuts to education in 2012.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or e-mail dmann@mailtribune.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.