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Oregon lawmakers pass $9.3 billion budget for K-12 schools

Oregon lawmakers on Thursday signed off on a $9.3 billion budget to fund K-12 schools for the next two years.

That’s a record allotment for the State School Fund doled out to districts around the state, and is expected to be approved by Gov. Kate Brown in coming days. But the package, though large, was not enough to stave off a last minute push for more.

As the budget bill, Senate Bill 5514, came up for a vote in the House of Representatives, state Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, moved that it be returned to committee. Smith, like the rest of his party, some Democrats and many schools officials, believes that the $9.3 billion isn’t enough to adequately fund K-12 education for the next two years. They’ve pushed instead for a $9.6 billion budget.

“We’re just coming out of a pandemic, and the notion of having a good budget isn’t good enough this time,” Smith argued on the House floor after moving for the bill to be sent back to committee.

Such parliamentary maneuvers have been fairly common this session, with Republican lawmakers attempting to pull their favored longshot bills out of committee for an immediate vote, or to send legislation they don’t like back to be amended. Normally, there is no question that majority Democrats will unite to defeat the motions.

But as Smith pointed out Thursday, a chunk of Democrats also favor a more robust schools budget. On Tuesday, 13 lawmakers — including eight House Democrats — signed onto a letter arguing for more funding in a variety of education areas.

Citing jaw-dropping estimates in the state’s latest quarterly revenue forecast, the lawmakers wrote that they “believe the resources exist to strengthen all education investments” before the Legislature adjourns later this month.

Among their asks: An extra $300 million for the State School Fund.

“According to the Oregon Association of School Business Officials report, the $9.3 billion budget will still result in cuts for most school districts in our state,” said the letter, addressed to the chairs of the Legislature’s budget committee. “We urge you to increase the state school fund budget to $9.6 billion.”

Whether or not the $9.3 billion will result in cuts to schools is contested. According to the Legislative Fiscal Office, school districts would only need about $9 billion to maintain their current services levels.

In her initial budget proposal, Gov. Brown suggested a schools budget of $9.1 billion and, last month, pointedly criticized legislative leaders when they floated a $9.3 billion package. She has since come to agree on that amount.

Among those who defended a $9.3 billion budget on Thursday was state Rep. Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, a budget committee co-chair. He argued that the proposed dollar figure was both adequate for schools, and would avoid the specter of cuts in two years, when federal relief funds and other money might be scarce.

“We need to do it sustainably so that we don’t have those ups and downs two years from now and that we do take care of our children,” Rayfield said.

He noted that schools would see hundreds of millions of dollars in additional funding from a new business tax lawmakers passed in 2019 in order to bolster education funding. Democrats hastened to point out Thursday that Republicans opposed that tax.

Republicans supporting more schools money paid little attention to that argument, saying that districts can more flexibly use funds sent to them in the schools budget.

“Most of the classrooms in my district don’t have air conditioning, do not have appropriate ventilation, and it’s been an issue,” said state Rep. Lily Morgan, R-Grants Pass. “The funds that we’re negotiating today have the flexibility for those smaller areas.”

In the end, all eight House Democrats who’d asked for more schools money in the June 1 letter stuck with their party leadership, and helped vote down the Republican motion on a 37-23 vote.

The budget then passed on a 36-20 party-line vote. It amounts to a 3.3% increase over the current schools budget.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Dirk VanderHart covers Oregon politics and government for OPB. Before barging onto the radio in 2018, he spent more than a decade as a newspaper reporter—much of that time reporting on city government for the Portland Mercury. He’s also had stints covering chicanery in Southwest Missouri, the wilds of Ohio in Ohio, and all things Texas on Capitol Hill.