The economy has dealt everyone a blow. The private sector has been hit hard. The public sector is soon to follow. And while things seem to be slowly turning around, the state is faced with making projections for the next two years that are bound to take a bite out of state-funded services, from public schools and higher education to social services and public safety.
The Legislature is faced with an ominous task. It has to divvy up the dollars in a way that has the least negative impact on Oregon’s well-being. Schools will feel the hit. So will higher education. Cuts to K-12 funding and higher education will be felt, especially in areas like ours where the unemployment rates have been above the state average for some time.
The well-being of our area schools, and Eastern Oregon University, is critical for our region’s future. The La Grande School District, for example, is expecting to cut about $2 million from its budget. Gone will be some administrative positions, some teaching positions and sports and activities unless private fundraising can make up the difference.
The co-chairs of the Legislature’s Joint Ways & Means Committee have proposed 15 percent cuts to higher education. That will translate to tuition rate increases of from 7 percent to 9 percent at most of the state universities. That’s too much for EOU’s student body and would severely impact enrollment — enrollment that has been increasing since President Dixie Lund began rebuilding the university two years ago. EOU officials say a 3.5 percent to 4 percent increase is the most their students can bear right now, and they are committed to making sure that will be the case by finding savings in other areas.
Lund has designed a budget scenario that protects students, staff and programs through seeking agreements with bargaining units for furlough days, and by leaving positions vacant and managing expenditures while maintaining the quality education students deserve. Those actions, along with a not-too-severe cut from the state, should allow EOU to keep tuition increases below what has been projected on a statewide basis.
Education, whether it be that received in Enterprise, Imbler, La Grande or at EOU, is the cornerstone for our region’s future success. Cuts from the state level are felt especially hard in rural areas, where only 18 percent of the population has a four-year degree compared to 31 percent in metro areas.
This recession has been tough on everyone. But it’s our young people who will, in the long term, pay the greatest price if we don’t make education our highest priority.