SCHOOL OFFICIALS FEAR WORST MAY NOT BE OVER

October 08, 2002 11:00 pm

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

An Oregon School Boards Association lobbyist received a first-hand look at history this year.

John Marshall attended all five of the Legislature's record special sessions, which were conducted to address the state's budget shortfall. There was nothing special about the time Marshall spent at the sessions as he waited to see how Oregon's public schools would fare in the Legislature's budget deliberations.

On most days legislators would convene on the floors of the House and Senate for several minutes and then leave to meet in party caucuses for long hours. It was a tedious experience for non-legislators like Marshall who could do nothing but wait.

"I was too bored to stick around and too paranoid to leave,'' said Marshall, director of legislative services for the school boards association.

Marshall, who spoke at an OSBA regional meeting in La Grande Tuesday night, fears that a sixth special session may be necessary in December or January. He said that one may be needed because it does not appear that Oregon's economy is recovering.

"The depth of the recession is significant. ... I don't know if we have hit bottom,'' Marshall said.

The OSBA official said that unlike what many people are saying, the budget problem cannot be solved by reducing waste. He believes that there is little remaining waste to be cut from the budget.

"People have been saying this for years. Don't you think that the low-hanging fruit has already been picked?'' Marshall said.

Chris Dudley, the OSBA's executive director, said the gravity of Oregon's school budget crunch cannot be overstated.

"This is not a fire drill. Schools are out of money,'' Dudley said.

Marshall said that Oregon is past the point of borrowing or using other quick fixes to address the school funding crisis.

"There are no tin cans left, there is no more money under the mattress,'' Marshall said.

He said the primary problem with the way that Oregon funds schools are funded is that there is too much reliance on the state income tax. Oregon schools get most of their money from the state, which relies on income taxes for revenue.

The income tax is not a stable source of funding because when a recession hits and people lose jobs, the state's revenue falls

dramatically.

No state is as reliant on one tax as a source of revenue as Oregon, Marshall said. The state gets 74 percent of its revenue from income taxes.

The state thus immediately feels the impact in any economic swings.

"It magnifies the economy,'' Marshall said.

He said that it will be easier to generate support for Oregon's schools if people understand what its public schools are accomplishing and how they compare to those in other states. Marshall and the OSBA want to get this information out.

Marshall said that Oregon spends more per student than schools in California and Idaho and about the same as what Washington spends.

He also said that Oregonians are not overtaxed. Oregon ranks 45th in the nation in terms of state and local taxes paid when they are compared to the percentage of income, Marshall said.

Oregon's schools are doing well on the basis of the improvement students have made on state assessment tests. However, budget problems are having a significant impact on student-teacher ratios.

The ratio has risen from 18.7 to 19.9 students per teacher at the elementary school level, 18.6 to 19.1 at the middle school level and 17.7 to 20 in high school, Dudley said.

Despite the need for stable funding, one will not be developed unless legislators have the backing of the people in their

districts.

"They need to know that it is safe. They (the legislators) are not bold political leaders. They are representatives of the community. If the community isn't going to support them, it will be difficult (to make changes),'' Dudley said.

The OSBA regional meeting was conducted at Eastern Oregon University and organized by the Union-Baker Education Service District.