School funding bills go to governor

SALEM — A divided Oregon House sent Gov. John Kitzhaber a pair of school funding bills Wednesday, advancing legislation criticized by education interests who say it's too little money.

The House approved the primary funding bill on a 32-28 vote, with 16 Republicans and 16 Democrats voting in favor and 14 members of each party opposing. A second bill that draws on $123 million in savings was approved, 58-2.

The $5.7 billion total spending plan leaves schools $1 billion short of the money they say is needed to continue services at their current levels for the next two years.

Education interests have warned that the approved funding is too low and will force teacher layoffs, shorter school years and larger class sizes. They've asked lawmakers to pull another $100 million from savings, which the Oregon Education Association, a teachers union, says would save 1,100 teaching jobs.

Even some lawmakers who voted for the bills said they don't provide enough resources for schools.

"Although not adequate, it's what we can do," said Rep. Dennis Richardson, a Central Point Republican and key negotiator on the bills.

Some lamented the effects the funding would have on schools.

"We are not providing our children with the same opportunities that we had," said Rep. Peter Buckley, an Ashland Democrat and budget negotiator. "We are not doing that, and it's our disgrace that we're not doing that."

The measures provide school districts with a funding floor, a minimum amount they can count on receiving from the state.

Rep. Dave Hunt of Gladstone, the Democratic leader, said the Legislature should plunge deeper into savings to boost school funding. "It is not the best we can do," he said Wednesday. "It is just all that too many are willing to do."

A budget plan negotiated by the co-chairs of the joint House and Senate budget committee leaves more than $300 million unspent to absorb future cuts if the economic recovery slows.

Lawmakers hope the economy will rebound and some of that money will be available for schools next year.

The House's divided vote comes one day after the Senate unanimously approved the same measures.

A spokeswoman for Kitzhaber, Christine Miles, said the governor will sign the main funding bill, SB 5552, but won't commit to signing the other, SB 5553, which spends $100 million in savings from the Education Stability Fund. Miles said Kitzhaber wants a commitment from legislative leaders that the $100 million will be used to prop up spending on early childhood and higher education, not just K-12 schools.

House Republican co-speaker Bruce Hanna said lawmakers are negotiating with the governor's office.

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