Legislative Update

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Oregon lawmakers last week overwhelmingly approved a proposed constitutional amendment that would create a financial "safety net'' for school districts that would otherwise be forced to close because of voter rejections of school-tax levies.

If the proposal is signed by Gov. Neil Goldschmidt as expected, it will be presented to voters in a May 19 special election.

Legislators made passage of the safety-net bill one of their highest priorities for the 1987 session, following the highly publicized closing of schools in Estacada for two weeks last December after voters rejected a levy request for the fourth time. The town's schools reopened in January after a $4.2-million request was approved. (See Education Week, Jan. 14, 1987.)

According to state education officials, school closures have plagued Oregon virtually every year since 1977. The forced closings occur when voters in districts with inadequate tax bases reject operating levies needed to keep the schools open the entire year.

Philip Rice, a spokesman for the state education department, said that the proposed constitutional amendment contains the following five provisions:

  • It would provide districts where levies have been rejected with the authority to assess taxes equal to the amount of revenue collected from such taxes in the most recent year.
  • It would require districts to levy the safety-net taxes if, by the end of September, the voters have not approved a levy that would allow the district to keep its schools open for the full year. Once the safety-net provision has been invoked, districts would be prohibited from seeking another tax increase during the same school year.
  • After the provision has been invoked, districts would be required to keep schools open for the full school year. Mr. Rice said that provision was intended to prevent districts from closing schools early to save money.
  • It applies only to districts that provide instruction from kindergarten through 12th grade, thus excluding community-college and educational-service districts.
  • It changes the dates and frequency of school-levy elections, from May and November in even-numbered years to once annually in November.--T.M.

All South Dakota teachers would get a $56 bonus next year, courtesy of a bill passed by the state legislature this month. The money for the bonuses would come from a $500,000 fund that Gov. George Mickelson set aside earlier this year to start a program to increase teachers' salaries.

Some lawmakers characterized the small bonus--which will not be added to teachers' base pay--as a slap in the face for the teaching profession.

The bill also provides financial incentives to encourage school districts to raise their teachers' pay. Proponents of the measure called it the first step toward raising the salaries of South Dakota's teachers, who are the lowest paid in the nation, with an average salary of $18,095 a year.

Legislators decided not to implement the incentive program until 1988 because the state lacks adequate funds and because lawmakers wanted time to study the measure, said James O. Hansen, the state superintendent of schools. Many were concerned that the formula would widen the gap in pay between large and small school districts.

Responding to criticism over the size of the bonuses, Mr. Hansen said: "At least we have a chance to decide on a formula and get the teachers out of 51st place. The bonus is small, but it shows we're sincere about making an effort to raise salaries.''

George Bauder, president of the South Dakota Education Association, agreed that "the bonus is clearly not enough.''

"On the other hand,'' he added, "I'm very glad to get $500,000. The Governor is committed to a two-year project, so we'll give him another year.''

The bill now goes to Governor Mickelson for his signature.--K.G.

Pledging to restore fiscal discipline to state government, Gov. Ned McWherter of Tennessee this month proposed a 1987-88 budget that would cut total state spending by about $95.7 million from its current level.

"I had hoped to stand here today and tell you that the state's fiscal posture is sound, but that would be betraying my responsibility as Governor,'' Mr. McWherter said in his March 4 address to state lawmakers. "Without further efforts to control spending, our deficit for next year could easily exceed $100 million.''

The Governor said that, on taking office this year, he inherited a projected $43-million deficit for the current fiscal year, which he attributed to "undisciplined'' spending during the final two years of former Gov. Lamar Alexander's tenure. To begin reducing the shortfall, Mr. McWherter ordered a temporary hiring freeze in January.

In his address, the Governor said he would extend the hiring freeze and take other steps to eliminate 1,000 state jobs permanently. He said additional moves to cut administrative costs would allow the state to give all teachers and other state employees a 4 percent pay raise in the coming year.

"I am prepared to do everything I can to keep my promises, including an average starting salary of $18,500 for our teachers,'' he said.

Mr. McWherter proposed a state budget totaling $6.67 billion, down from $6.76 billion for the current fiscal year. General-fund spending, however, would increase under his plan, from $5.14 billion to $5.34 billion. According to state officials, the reduction in total state spending reflects a cut in federal aid, proposed cuts in administrative costs, a freeze on capital outlays, and reductions in the state's bond program.

Total state spending for precollegiate education would increase from $1.17 billion to $1.21 billion under the Governor's plan. Mr. McWherter proposed earmarking $89.6 million in new funds for the state's career-ladder program for teachers.

According to Sydney Owen, a spokesman for the education department, an additional $12 million in carry-over funds from the 1986-87 fiscal year will raise the total amount available for the program to $101.6 million, compared with the $95.7 million available in the current fiscal year.--T.M.

Vol. 06, Issue 25

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