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School officials blast new education budget

SALEM — Education interests have mounted an unusually vocal challenge to the schools budget proposed by Democratic legislative leaders, saying the plan would lead to larger classes and shorter school years.

Legislative leaders are defending the plan, saying most school districts will do neither better nor worse than their current funding situation. They say their proposal is the best they can do without devastating other areas of the budget, including higher education. They note the state is facing the potential for $350 million in "kicker" tax rebates and, for the first time, funding all-day kindergarten statewide

Their plan, an increase of 9 percent over current funding levels, is likely to come before the House and Senate next month.

Over the past two weeks, parents, school officials, education interest groups and others have delivered hours of public testimony blasting the plan. The proposed funding increase won't keep pace with rising costs, forcing drastic cuts, they say.

"I can tell you with absolute certainty, this is a cuts budget," Chuck Bennett, a lobbyist for the Coalition of School Administrators, told The Associated Press. "We will have teachers laid off, programs canceled and school days lost statewide if this is the amount that ultimately becomes available to school districts."

Democratic leaders insist very few school districts would be forced to cut teachers or school days. While not ideal, they say, their plan would maintain the status quo for another two years across most of the state.

"We feel like we're moving in the right direction," said House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland. "There will be a lot of discussion from districts about whether that is adequate. It's a little bit in the eye of the beholder, depending on how you set your local budget."

In the last budget, lawmakers prioritized education, giving schools a significant boost after they heavily cut during the Great Recession. Now, legislative leaders say, it's time to focus on other areas of the budget that have been neglected.

Funding for K-12 schools is the largest portion of the state budget, accounting for about half the spending from the general fund and lottery. With the growth of property taxes constrained by the ballot measures from the 1990s, school districts get the bulk of their funding from the state, and the state's education spending is one of the Legislature's most closely watched decisions every two years.

Education costs rise each year due to, among other factors, normal inflation and increasing compensation for teachers, who generally earn more as they gain experience and education.

Democrats are proposing $7.24 billion in state aid for schools over the next two years. That's an increase of nearly $600 million over the current biennium, but schools say it's not enough to cover their higher costs. They say an additional $265 million would be needed to keep most districts at their current spending levels.

Who's right? That depends in large part on the economy. Legislative leaders are betting on a strong recovery.

Compared with the school officials, lawmakers are using much more generous assumptions about the growth in local property taxes, which supplement the state aid for schools. They're also betting that they'll be able to add money for schools during the second year of the budget cycle.

Typically, schools get 49 percent of their funding in the first year of the biennium and 51 percent in the second. For the next budget, Democrats are proposing a 50-50 split, which would leave schools with higher costs but stagnant revenue in the 2016-17 school year.

Democrats plan to move forward with their spending plan in the coming weeks, while leaving open the possibility they can add additional money later in the legislative session. The biggest wild card is the potential for "kicker" tax rebates, which would send $350 million back to taxpayers, based on the latest projections. Kicker rebates are triggered when tax collections exceed expectations by at least two percent.

"This is a multi-year effort to get education back on its feet in the state," said Rep. Peter Buckley, an Ashland Democrat who is co-chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, which oversees the budget.