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Officials Say Oregon Schools Face Early Closure

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Many Oregon schools could close early this year unless they receive help soon from a federal stimulus package or an infusion of cash from state reserves, school administrators are warning.

The Confederation of Oregon School Administrators called Monday for quick action to avoid a repeat of early school closures in the 2003 recession that hurt the state's image and deprived students of a full school year.

Part of the school chiefs' worry is that, at the congressional level, the Senate's version of a federal stimulus package contains far less money than the House approved to help financially strapped states preserve programs and pay for schools.

Just a week ago, state leaders were hoping to get more flexibility as to when they could use nearly $750 million in stimulus relief.

Now there are no promises they'll get that much relief at all.

Where the House put $54 billion into state budget aide, the Senate bill puts $39 billion. It's a problem, lawmakers say, because Oregon could use every penny it can get to offset a projected shortfall of $800 million for the current biennium.

"Oregon is like the rest of the nation in that there are schools that need this assistance," said Anna Richter Taylor, a spokeswoman for Gov. Ted Kulongoski. "The state needs this assistance."

The uncertainty, however, seems to be the most challenging aspect for the governor and legislators as they try to balance the current biennium's budget before March.

"We haven't ever outlined a specific plan for those dollars for this very reason," Richter Taylor said. "Without certainty of what's coming, it makes it very difficult to plan."

For that reason, education backers are hoping to persuade state lawmakers in Salem to tap into a $400 million education reserve fund to help schools get through the rest of the year. Legislative leaders and the governor are reluctant to do that, saying the recession could grow even worse in the next two years and the cash reserves must be used cautiously.

Cutting Costs

The financial uncertainty is why many local school officials are negotiating with labor unions and making other preparations to cut personnel costs by ending school early, possibly by as much as one or two weeks.

"They've got to plan for this," said Chuck Bennett, lobbyist for the school administrators. "Nobody is sitting in a money tree out there."

The $800 million state lawmakers are removing from the current operating budget could leave schools with a $260 million additional cut, Bennett said.

The southern Oregon community of Roseburg is one of the places where local school officials are preparing for a possibly shortened school year.

"You can cut all the field trips you want," said Roseburg School Superintendent Larry Parsons. "There's no way to make up that deficit except to cut school days."

Oregon House Speaker Dave Hunt said Monday that he and other state leaders are holding out hope that Congress will provide quick, substantial help for schools through the federal stimulus package.

"We will continue efforts to convince Congress to give us significant funding that we can use for this school year. That's the biggest hole we need to fill in Oregon right now," the Gladstone Democrat said.

There's little doubt, both in Oregon and on Capitol Hill, that some plan will get passed, but whether those education dollars make it into the final bill is the question.

Congressman Peter DeFazio — a critic of House stimulus package and now even bigger critic of the Senate's version — says that Oregon could count on some education assistance.

"I would say that what's in the Senate bill is the minimum that they're going to get," DeFazio said.

Oregon's Democratic delegation has been in close contact with state leaders and local school districts, all of whom are pushing to keep hold of the funding, DeFazio said.

"We're not going to be easily persuaded that (cutting it) is a good idea."

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