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Some school districts already feeling pain of budget cuts.

Byline: Anne Williams The Register-Guard

For some school district officials across Oregon, pondering whether the Legislature will ultimately dole out enough money to hold K-12 education harmless in the next biennium feels like a bit of an academic exercise.

They have more pressing concerns to deal with - namely, how to get by on thousands to millions fewer dollars than they were counting on this year.

Depending on their particular budget assumptions, enrollment trends, reserves and revenue sources, school districts are considering everything from reining in supply purchases to paring positions to deal with Gov. Ted Kulongoski's call for a 1.2 percent across-the-board spending cut.

For the Eugene School District, shaving $2.2 million from the budget will be relatively painless, said Susan Fahey, director of financial services.

Due in part to a local operating levy thrice approved by voters, the district has substantial reserves and will be able to balance the budget largely by delaying transfers to other funds and curtailing contingency requests, she said.

"Actually, we're very fortunate - at least this year, unless things get terrifically worse," she said.

But at least a half-dozen Oregon districts - including South Lane in Cottage Grove, which is grappling with a $750,000 shortfall - may end up cutting days from the school calendar.

"These are horrible things," said South Lane Superintendent Krista Parent, who recently spent a day delivering notices of pending layoffs, transfers and reduced hours to 26 employees.

Kindergarten takes a hit

Among those on the list is Delight Valley School's half-time kindergarten teacher Mina Logue, who will be transferred after winter break to Bohemia Elementary to fill a midyear kindergarten vacancy.

Her 12 students - seven girls, five boys - will join Mary Nisewander's first-grade class, making for a blended class of 34.

At Bohemia, meanwhile, the number of kindergarten classes will shrink from four to three, and Logue will have twice as many students as she does now.

South Lane is in a worse position than many districts, due in part to reduced yields on investments, this year's low property tax collection rates and a funding formula adjustment for the previous year that reduced the amount the state paid per student for the 2007-08 school year, Parent said. Also, South Lane officials have made a conscious decision in recent years to spend more dollars in the classroom vs. building up year-end reserves. Aside from a $1 million contingency fund, Parent explained, dollars end up in the budget.

Though Parent isn't entirely comfortable with that practice, "the alternative is not good," she said.

"Do you close three more classrooms? We keep hanging on, and we figure as long as we've got the contingency, let's provide the highest quality education we can."

Other reductions, approved by the South Lane board last week and set to take effect in January, include the elimination of the district's only preschool classes, at rural London and Dorena elementary schools; a custodial position and a campus security position at Cottage Grove High School; the half-time vice principal post at Harrison Elementary; and reduced funds for coaches and travel for high school athletics.

The biggie, though, is the loss of three instructional days - a cut that will necessitate renegotiating the teachers' contract.

While there are some hoops to jump through in order to do that, a survey found 93 percent of teachers preferred reducing days rather than eliminating positions.

"Everywhere I went, everyone said the only fair way is to share in the pain," Parent said, referring to a tour of schools she made to hear opinions on where to cut.

A double whammy

The Springfield School District also is facing deeper cuts than some - again, based in part on certain budget assumptions.

In addition to nearly $2 million stemming from the state funding shortfall, the district has to adjust spending for an additional $1.2 million shortfall - this one related to federal forest payments, the continuation of which was included in the Wall Street bailout legislation Congress passed in October.

Even though the state Department of Education advised districts those funds would probably not materialize, Springfield included the estimated $1.2 million in its budget, explained Brett Yancey, director of financial services.

While the funds ultimately did come through, the state department absorbed them into the statewide funding formula and distributed them throughout the state, giving Springfield no more than any other district.

In hindsight, Yancey said, counting on those funds may not have been the most prudent decision, but it was one agreed to by the school board and budget committee.

At this point, the district hopes to avoid job or school-day cuts, Yancey said.

Instead, the district will scrap nearly all staff training planned for the rest of the year; leave any current vacancies open; delay any nonessential supply, textbook and equipment purchases; and halt travel - including plans by several board members to attend the annual National School Boards Association conference.

Whether any district officials will join other local government leaders on their annual United Front lobbying trip to Washington, D.C., "is still under discussion," Yancey said.

Yancey said the biggest worry is that revenue estimates will sink even lower before the end of the school year, necessitating another round of budget slashing.

More cuts ahead?

Aside from Siuslaw, where Superintendent George Winterscheid said there will be some yet-to-be-determined midyear layoffs and probably a shorter school year, other districts in Lane County hope to balance their budgets largely by curbing nonessential spending and reducing professional development.

While that may get them through this year, the next big concern is the 2009-11 biennium. There's broad agreement that Kulongoski's proposed budget doesn't square with his recent pledge to maintain current levels of funding for schools, and considerable worry that the state's economic picture will only darken.

"The ramification is bigger cuts will be in order for next year," said Pleasant Hill Superintendent Tony Scurto, whose district is one of several feeling the additional pain of enrollment decline.

"The economy is taking its toll, and tough decisions are ahead."

MIDYEAR SHORTFALL

A state revenue shortfall led Gov. Ted Kulongoski last month to order a 1.2 percent cut to state spending in the 2008-09 fiscal year.

Some Lane County school districts were in better shape than others to absorb the hit.

Districts planning to cut days and/or staff: South Lane, Siuslaw, Lane Education Service District

Districts planning to reduce spending on supplies, equipment, training, etc.: Bethel, Eugene, Springfield, Creswell, Lowell, Pleasant Hill, Junction City, Fern Ridge, Marcola, McKenzie
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Title Annotation:Education; The effects of reductions imposed by the state range from a little belt-tightening in Eugene to fewer days in South Lane
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Dec 15, 2008
Words:1082
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