Budget ax sharpened in Astoria as state shorts Oregon schools againThe Astoria School District will need to trim about $400,000 from its budget under Gov. Ted Kulongoski's proposed funding for K-12 education, Superintendent Mike Sowder said Tuesday during a meeting with parents, community members and school board members.

The meeting offered the first glimpse of how the district will fair financially in 2005-06 - and it's far from rosy.

"We've got to have some help here," Sowder said. "I don't think our state has prioritized K-12 education."

Kulongoski has committed $5 billion to K-12 education. Most analysts say that with inflation, PERS retirement costs, health insurance and utility costs, $5.3 billion to $5.4 billion is necessary just to maintain current programs.

This budget comes on the heels of years of reductions to education, Sowder said. While state funding has increased overall from $4.5 billion in 1999 to $4.93 billion this last biennium, it hasn't been enough to keep up with inflation, so schools have been losing ground.

If the Legislature doesn't allocate more money to schools, the district will again be looking for ways to reduce its budget. Sowder examined a few of those options during the meeting.

He said many people ask why the district won't use federal money from special education and Title programs to balance the budget. In fact, those funds are restricted and must be spent on specific activities.

"They send people to jail for (misusing those funds), so I haven't wanted to do that," Sowder said.

Others have suggested cutting some of the 117 classified employees. However, Sowder said that most of those employees are funded through federal programs, so it wouldn't give the district any more flexibility.

Reducing or eliminating sports, arts, music, drama and other extracurricular activities is another option, one Sowder is loath to suggest.

"Research shows you that when that happens, you've lost your students," he said. "Grades go down, they lose motivation ... I don't think we want to mess with that."

But just as important is keeping class sizes down in the early grades. Fifty percent of students who aren't reading at grade level by fourth grade will never read at their grade level, Sowder said.

"Folks, we can't afford to cut any more teachers out of K-6," he said.

Taking teachers from the high school isn't much better, said activities coordinator and teacher Jenni Newton.

"I've had class sizes of 36 students, 42 students," she said. "I don't want people to walk away thinking that's the place to cut. I have a son in the elementary school, and I don't want to see it there either."

Sowder said another option is to cut school days; each day would save the district $50,000. But every day that's lost is less learning time and a cut in pay for teachers.

There's also the option of cutting transportation, but transportation is one of the best-funded state programs - the district is reimbursed for 70 percent of its costs.

Sowder noted that K-12 education is not alone. Clatsop Community College is looking at reductions.

"We're really not paying enough taxes now to take care of social services," board member Bob Ellsberg said.

With political infighting and deal-making, the state schools budget is liable to change all the way through June, Sowder said. The district will wait until as late as possible to pass a budget so that it has the most up-to-date information.

One potentially bright spot amid the gloom and doom scenarios is the addition of a district preschool. The district has applied for a planning grant to determine if there are any partnership opportunities and grant moneys available to start up a classroom for 3- and 4-year-olds.

"One of our biggest challenges is having our kindergartners ready to learn," Sowder said.

The district would not use any of its general fund money for a preschool; it would have to be supported through grants and partnerships with, for example, Head Start.

After the meeting, Loran Mathews, former financial officer for the district, said the district has few options to make ends meet.

"All these programs are viable," he said. "It's a hard choice and I certainly don't have an answer."

Parent Julia Mabry said she almost didn't want to show up because she knew the news was going to be so depressing.

"I think what we need to do is rally the parents to see that they need to be involved with their students, get more parents into the schools to help out," she said.

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