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Oregon K-12 Schools Face Budget Hit

State economists predict that the weak economy will trigger a billion dollar shortfall for state services in the next two-year budget. And that has  many Oregonians fearing the worst when Governor Ted Kulongoski proposes his state budget later Monday morning. But  many school officials have even more pressing concerns. Schools are trying to figure out how to deal with millions of dollars in cuts to their current budgets, as Rob Manning reports.

Regardless of what approach your local school administrators might be taking to deal with the latest budget cut, they all have something in common. Maureen Wheeler, with the Beaverton schools, explains.

Wheeler: “The challenge for all districts, not just Beaverton - our reduction is at $4.279 million dollars - and coming in the middle of the year, that’s a challenge, because you have programs and staff in place. So I think it is a significant reduction that we’d be looking at.”

The problem with a mid-year cut is you can’t “un-buy” textbooks, or “un-hire” the additional reading specialists, you thought you had money for. You can make decisions like that for future budgets, but not for the budget you’re actually using.

Beaverton is like a number of large school districts with a healthy reserve fund. But officials say they want to look for minor cutbacks first. Portland Public Schools have a reserve that's almost three times the size of Beaverton's.  PPS spokesman Matt Shelby says he expects the distict to to use that money.

Shelby: “It’s a little bit early to highlight specifics right now, but what both the board and the superintendent have signaled, is that they are definitely willing to tap into those reserves to avoid teacher layoffs or a shortened school year.”

A shorter school year is on the short list of options for smaller school districts that may not have big reserve funds to fall back on.

School days have already been cut at Reynolds schools in East Portland and the Nestucca School District, in Tillamook County.  Crook County schools have  a similar budget hole. Interim head  Rich Schultz says the district has cut discretionary spending in half. But he says that won’t be enough.

Schultz: “So we have been looking at cuts to days, which is a typical response of many school districts. Basically, to reduce our payroll, which would then help us live within our means.”  

Schultz is still negotiating with teachers and staff unions over how many days to cut. He'll also need to get a one-time waiver from the state to cut school days.

Of course, some districts fall  somewhere between Crook County’s crisis, and the  relative calm of Portland's situation. Take La Grande, for instance. Superintendent Larry Glaze says his budget hole could swallow up nearly his entire reserve, if he let it. So he’s not going to.

Glaze: “It would put us in a position, that if we took those reserves and used them to cover that cost, then if we had a real emergency, we wouldn’t have dollars available to deal with it.”

So, instead, Glaze says he’s freezing what he calls “non-essential” spending.

Glaze and other administrators are bracing for a different problem beginning in a few weeks, when they start to draw up their budgets for next school year. They expect the governor's budget this morning to be lean. And it  could get even leaner depending on the economy, and on what lawmakers  do when they meet in January.

Administrators will have more options for the next school year. But they're not great options. Some officials predict that many Oregon districts may have no choice but to cut programs and lay off teachers.

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