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State leaders propose boost in education budget

SALEM — Oregon’s Democratic legislative leaders on Wednesday proposed a nearly $600 million increase in funding for primary and secondary schools during the next two-year budget cycle, but school officials said it still may not be enough to avoid cuts.

The Legislature’s chief budget writers said they made education their top priority. Their $7.24 billion budget for K-12 schools would be an increase of 9 percent over current funding and 5 percent over Gov. John Kitzhaber’s proposal.

Sen. Richard Devlin and Rep. Peter Buckley, the Democrats who lead the Ways and Means Committee, said their budget plan would be “adequate” to keep schools on their current trajectory without sliding backward. But a “game-changing” investment in education would require more revenue.

Their plan is an outline that will guide budget discussions during the upcoming legislative session.

“This is not the end of the process,” Devlin said. “There are 10,000 decisions that still need to be made. But we want to put education at the forefront of our recommendation.”

But school officials say they’ll need another $250 million for all districts to avoid cutting spending.

Given rising costs for salaries, benefits and other expenses, school officials say they’d need about $7.5 billion to break even while also implementing a mandate that every district provide full-day kindergarten starting next school year.

“With that said, I want to emphasize that we are very, very encouraged by the numbers out today and hopeful that through the legislative process we can continue to make progress,” said Alex Pulaski, a spokesman for the Oregon School Boards Association.

The impact on individual districts would vary based on factors that include their collective bargaining agreements and local taxes.

Republicans criticized the Democratic budget for doing away with Kitzhaber’s proposal to tie a portion of school funding to educational outcomes. They also said the budget should devote more money to career education — such as shop classes — and science, technology, engineering and math courses, known as STEM. The Democrats suggest a $60 million increase in those programs.

“Without meaningful investment in career education and STEM programs, our students will fall behind,” said Sen. Chuck Thomsen, R-Hood River.

The legislative Democrats also would devote more money than Kitzhaber to universities and community colleges. They would spend less than the governor on early-childhood education.

Their budget proposal would give 52 percent of the general fund and lottery to education, from preschool through college.

The emphasis on education would require cuts in social safety net programs. Buckley characterized the cuts as manageable: “About $140 million in a multi-billion-dollar budget.”

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