While the proposed $8.8 billion education budget by top lawmakers for the 2019-21 biennium would allow the La Grande School District to continue operating without making any staff or program cuts, the school district would not be able to increase the services it provides students.

“It is a status quo budget,” said La Grande School District Superintendent George Mendoza. “We are very hopeful that the state will find more funding for education.”

Lance Dixon, superintendent of the North Powder School District, echoes the feelings of Mendoza.

“We will not be cutting (under the proposed budget), which is a great place to start from,” said Dixon, who also stressed the spending plan would not allow his school district to enhance programs like it is hoping to.

The $8.8 billion budget is proposed by the Legislature’s Committee on Ways and Means, which is the state’s budget writing committee, co-chaired by state Rep. Dan Rayfield (D-Corvallis), Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose) and Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward (D-Beaverton). The proposed education spending plan is up $600 million from the $8.2 billion budget for the current biennium. However, for school districts like La Grande and North Powder, the additional money they would receive would go to paying for increases in “roll up” costs including increasing staff wages and benefits and higher payments into the Public Employees Retirement System.

“We can live with it, but it does not have much maneuvering room. It is a survival budget. It is not a budget you can build programs with,” said Chris Panike, the La Grande School District’s business manager.

Panike said there had been talk that the Joint Committee on Ways and Means would recommend a $8.7 billion budget. That $100 million would have made a painful difference.

“It would have damaged all school districts (in the state),” Panike said.

Mendoza said the proposed budget would not allow the school district to add staff it has a need for, such as physical education teachers, behavioral specialists and additional staff for high needs students.

“We will need more funding to innovate at a high level,” he said.

Dixon said the proposed budget would mean that his school district would have to delay finishing work on its new Career Technical Education building. The district would also have to put off boosting the amount of counseling time available to students and wouldn’t be able to hire intervention specialists for math and language arts instruction.

These limitations, however, might be averted. Mark Mulvihill, superintendent of the InterMountain Education Service District, believes there is an excellent chance the Legislature will increase funding for education beyond the $8.8 billion mark.

“I am very, very optimistic,” he said. “We are at the beginning of a conversation on how we can reinvest in education.”

See complete story in Monday's Observer