'07 Legislature deals education straight aces


State Rep. Peter Buckley could not have been dealt a better hand.

The Ashland Democrat is fortunate enough to be the chairman of the House Education Committee during a legislative session that will surely go down in Oregon history as one of the best for schools.

A robust economy has filled state coffers and revenue projections have exceeded expectations, allowing lawmakers to invest in classrooms at all levels &

from Head Start to graduate school programs.

After years of seeing their share of the general fund shrink, schools will realize dramatic funding increases when Gov. Ted Kulongoski signs the state's education budgets with much fanfare at a signing ceremony today as the Legislature prepares to adjourn.

"We've moved some good legislation," Buckley said. "We're turning the corner."

In a word, Buckley said this has been a "fantastic" session for education, pointing to passage of the Shared Responsibility Model, a cornerstone of the Democratic governor's education agenda.

The program changes how tuition grants are allocated by the state, allowing students once again to work their way through school, Buckley said. Under the program, students who are willing to contribute a specified share of the cost are guaranteed an education at a state college or university.

For his part in advancing the Democrats' education agenda, Buckley has won praise from local school officials and education advocates who say they haven't been given a winning hand in many years.

"Right now, I am such a huge fan of Rep. Peter Buckley," said grateful Southern Oregon University Student Body President Monique Teal, who is planning to attend today's budget signing.

The criminology major said Buckley was "completely on our side," pushing for such things as a $106 million student aid package and a 22 percent overall funding increase for Oregon's seven universities in the 2007-09 budget cycle.

"This is a wonderful first step," Teal said. "I hope that it's a turning point so higher education will no longer be the red-headed stepchild in the budget."

L. Otto Schell, the Oregon PTA's director of legislative activities, agrees this has been a seminal year for schools, and is quick to credit Buckley for his part in delivering the successes.

"He did a pretty darn good job at sorting things out in his committee," Schell said. "He took good ideas and made them better and sorted out the bad ideas."

Education chairman, he said, is a "good fit" for Buckley, a former stage actor and director.

"His ability to listen and build consensus are really good assets for leading a committee," Schell said of Buckley from his Portland office.

Like Teal, he said the coming year's funding increases should be just a first step in what will likely be a long journey toward building a world-class education system in the Beaver State.

"Yes we made progress, but we need to remind people that we're about $1 billion from where we should be," he said, alluding to the schools' state funding benchmark set by the Oregon's Quality Education Model.

That map, charted by a state commission, said that the Legislature should be allocating $7.7 billion this biennium, far from the $6.246 billion that lawmakers are directing to K-12 schools for the next two years, Schell said.

With all of the competing interests in Salem, Ashland School District Board of Education member Ruth Alexander said she is elated that the state's ballooning coffers will benefit K-12 schools with a 14 percent funding increase.

"We are very fortunate to have a (district) superintendent as fiscally responsible as Juli DiChiro," Alexander said. "She is always thinking about the future and planning for the possibility that money could be cut back."

"I am just so glad that is not going to happen this year," she added.

DiChiro agreed this has been a very successful session, and quickly commended Buckley and state Sen. Alan Bates, D-Ashland, "for securing the very best that they could" for the district, beset by declining enrollment.

Buckley and Bates, she said, were able to champion legislation in their respective chambers that will ultimately allow the district to seek voter approval for a local option tax up to 20 percent of its operating budget, up from the 15 percent allowed currently by law.

The tax would replace the district's Youth Activities Levy, which is set to expire in 2008, after being passed by voters in 1994 and renewed three times thereafter.

School Board Member Mat Marr has said the bill, which the governor is expected to sign, will "be a way to give a relatively inexpensive shot in the arm to our wonderful school district."

Doug Riggs, a contract lobbyist for the Chalkboard Project, said while Buckley gets "high marks" for his leadership style, the Legislature gets an overall "Incomplete" grade for not passing proposals to boost professional development programs for teachers, among other failed bills.

"Peter Buckley was an excellent chairman," Riggs said. "He was always willing to allow us to make our concerns known and hear the positions of the Republicans on his panel. I think everyone would agree that the process was fair and balanced."

In a stinging defeat, House lawmakers blocked a proposal carried by Buckley and Bates that would have augmented how Oregon's 17 community colleges are funded.

They argued vehemently that Rogue Community College is shortchanged by the "perverse" funding formula that determines how much money each campus receives in state general fund dollars.

In essence, they said, the state penalizes RCC for the money the school gets from a special voter-approved levy since that money is deducted from the school's state general fund allotment.

So, while overall state spending on community colleges has increased 13 percent since 2003, RCC has experienced a 16 percent drop in its state funding during that time because Jackson and Josephine counties raise millions for the college through local property taxes.

"It is still a frustration that weren't able to change this, but we are not going to give up on it," Buckley said. "They are on-call to come up with a (funding) solution that will work."

Bates, a member of the powerful Joint Ways and Means Committee, which oversees the budget-writing process, was able to persuade the panel's co-chairs to attach a so-called "budget note" to the $511 million community college budget.

That legislative directive will lead ultimately to new funding formula, Bates said.

Some say that the session's successes are due in large measure to Democrats being in control of both chambers of the state Legislature and the governor's office &

for the first time in 16 years. Others, however, say it is purely good fortune that delivered Democrats their major policy victory.

If the state's financial wellbeing had been better than it was in sessions past, Republicans say they would have liked nothing better than to direct more dollars to classrooms"" but alas that wasn't in the cards.

Sometimes you just have to play the hand that's dealt.

covers the state Legislature for the Ashland Daily Tidings. You can reach him at csrizo@hotmail.com.

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