October 16, 2001 11:00 pm

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

A downturn in the economy may force Oregon school districts to cut their budgets.

John Marshall of the Oregon School Boards Association sounded the warning during a presentation in La Grande Tuesday.

Oregons slumping economy means that the state may receive up to $700 million less than what legislators expected when they approved the states 2001-03 budget.

This does not bode well for Oregons public schools, which rely on the state for most of their funding.

The shortfall is presently estimated at $212 million, based on the states Sept. 1 revenue forecast. The next forecast is expected to show an even greater shortfall, Marshall said. This is because the states economy has slowed following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.

The states next revenue forecast will be released Nov. 30. It will have a significant impact on what steps Gov. John Kitzhaber and the Legislature take. Talk in Salem is focusing on making budget cuts instead of raising revenue to cope with the shortfall, Marshall said during a regional meeting of the Oregon School Boards Association at Eastern Oregon University.

It appears likely that Oregon public schools would be affected by the cuts since about half of the states budget goes to fund the schools.

Marshall said the OSBA will encourage legislators to wait until April to make decisions on budget cuts. This is because the state will have a much better idea by then about income tax revenue.

Meanwhile, he is encouraging school boards to be frugal while waiting to see how the state handles its budget shortfall.

Try to conserve resources. If you have positions open try not to fill them, Marshall said. These are uncertain times. Make sure that the kids are served.

There are many variables to consider when trying to anticipate what will happen. They include term limits. Many legislators cannot run for reelection in 2002 because of term limits. This means that some legislators may be less sensitive to pressure from their constituents to protect schools, Marshall said.

In another matter, Jim Green of the OSBA discussed efforts by

the state to require seismic upgrades to protect buildings during earthquakes.

Small school districts could benefit from this, Green said. He explained that the state wants to make sure that should a major earthquake occur, a community center remains standing. This would provide shelter for victims and a place for emergency personnel to congregate.

In small communities, schools are often the only such buildings available. This means that small-town schools might be more likely to receive funding for seismic upgrades, Green said.