Ore. Voters Bail Out Schools, Lawmakers—at Least for Now
Educators throughout Oregon breathed sighs of at least temporary relief last week, after voters approved a state ballot measure that adds a much-needed $150 million to school district coffers and sets up a rainy-day education fund.
The approval of Measure 19 means that Oregon districts—almost all of which have resorted to steps such as shorter school years, employee layoffs, and cuts to education programs—will get a brief reprieve from further belt-tightening as state revenues continue to fall.
Oregon has been grappling with a spiraling budget deficit over the past year. Since February, legislators have met in five special sessions, the last one ending Sept. 18, in attempts to cover a now $482 million shortfall in an overall state biennial budget of $12 billion.
"Clearly, given the budget crisis and the impact that $150 million would have across the state, the overwhelming majority of voters knew that schools really needed this money," said Chris Coughlin, the coordinator of the Salem-based Coalition for School Funding Now!, a grassroots group that includes parents and teachers.
Measure 19 converts the state's $278 million education endowment fund into an emergency fund, which will receive 18 percent of the state lottery's net proceeds beginning July 1, 2003. Schools will receive proceeds from the new fund in May.
But groups such as the Oregon PTA are skeptical about how much Measure 19 will help schools.
Sharon Nakamura, the vice president of legislative services for the state PTA, said she wasn't sure the fund would grow large enough or fast enough to adequately underwrite schools once the next recession hits. "We're just going to watch and see what happens," she said last week.
As of Sept. 19, the day after the vote, Measure 19 was passing by a about a 3-2 ratio with 44 percent of the ballots, or 809,357 counted. Final numbers were not available late last week. The secretary of state's office has 30 days to certify the results.
Rep. Vic Backlund, a Republican and a former teacher, said he was not only pleased with the ballot results, but also "pleasantly surprised." That's because a similar proposal, Measure 13, failed last spring.
Mr. Backlund and others see Measure 19 as a better deal for education than its failed predecessor, which would have allotted 15 percent of the state's lottery proceeds for schools. Measure 19 will withdraw a smaller amount of money for schools upfront—$150 million instead of $220 million—ensuring more money in the fund for the future.
Unlike the measure that was defeated, Measure 19 also creates a matching school construction account, which will receive 15 percent of net lottery proceeds once the rainy-day fund limit is met. That limit is 5 percent of the state's general fund.
Education organizations such as the state teachers' union and the Oregon School Boards Association, as well as Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber, rejected the earlier measure as a short-term fix. ("Ore. Plan Would Mitigate School Budget Cuts," July 10, 2002.)
As a result, Mr. Backlund suggested, voters may have been confused on how to vote last week on Measure 19.
"People were trying to create a train wreck," Mr. Backlund says of the previous measure. "They thought it would create a situation so bad that there would be a great movement to come up with a massive amount of money [for schools].
"That was in May," he continued. "Here we are in September, and people are realizing ... that this is the best we're going to get, and it's time to support this."
John Marshall, the legislative director for the Oregon School Boards Association, acknowledged that his group's rejection of Measure 13 was calculated to pressure legislators to address long-term school aid.
But that didn't happen, he said.
"The legislature didn't have the political will to do it the right way, and [Measure 19] was the only way to give some certainty and stability to schools this year," Mr. Marshall said.
Even with the measure's passage, the financial outlook for Oregon schools this year is far from rosy. Portland schools Superintendent James Scherzinger said that while he's happy Measure 19 passed, the school board must still shave another $5 million from the district's $360 million budget because of previous legislative action that didn't deliver more money for education.
"To me," he said, "there's still the uncertainty on where [our schools] come out."
Vol. 22, Issue 4, Page 19