Oregon school districts are preparing their annual budgets this spring. They have to adopt them by the end of June. 

But until a schools budget is passed, districts won’t know how much money they’ll have.

Districts need more money than ever to address rising student needs. Some are already cutting positions to prepare for less funding. Without firm numbers from the state, school leaders may be faced with substantial cuts this fall. 

They’re building their budgets anyway, basing them on Gov. Tina Kotek’s proposed spending plan, which would allocate $9.9 billion to the State School Fund, the main source of funding for educating Oregon’s 550,000 K-12 students. The fund is split over two years and assigned to the state’s 197 districts based on enrollment. It also pays for district operating expenses, transportation costs and other needs.

Districts could get more — likely $10.2 billion — if lawmakers have their way. Or it could be substantially less — $9.3 billion or less — if no budget is passed. All of these options are below the $10.3 billion it costs to run Oregon schools now. 

More money needed

Kotek’s proposed $9.9 billion would represent an historic high in school funding. Education advocates have pointed to schools being underfunded for years, but COVID and its aftermath have brought on added challenges. 

The $9.9 billion would mark an overall $600 million increase in K-12 spending for the biennium and would average out to roughly $9,682 per student in 2023-24 and $10,000 per student in 2024-25, according to estimates from the Oregon Department of Education earlier this year

The state is paying $9,468 per student in the current school year.

Many say it isn’t enough.

Enrollment is declining statewide, but advocates say students’ needs — especially following the COVID lockdowns and remote learning — are much greater today. Students require more social, emotional, behavioral and academic support, which in turn requires more personnel and other resources. All this is happening as federal pandemic relief dollars dry up.

Districts including Portland Public, Salem-Keizer, Beaverton and Tigard-Tualatin have proposed dozens of position cuts in preparation for the $9.9 billion figure. 

Lawmakers bumped the total proposal for the State School Fund to $10.2 billion after a promising revenue forecast came out in mid-May. A few lawmakers pitched varying totals to increase the spending before they landed on that amount. Rep. Tracy Cramer, R-Gervais, for example, introduced an amendment to House Bill 5015 to increase funding to $10.4 billion, which failed in the Joint Ways and Means education subcommittee on a 3-5 vote on party lines

Buying time

Even if lawmakers were to fail to pass a budget by the session’s constitutional deadline on June 25, schools will still be paid. A new resolution essentially extends the legislative deadline for passing state budgets to mid-September. 

House Concurrent Resolution 23, passed by lawmakers earlier this year, allows state agencies to receive funding even if lawmakers do not approve a budget in June. School districts would revert back to the current $9.3 billion allowance. The resolution requires lawmakers to approve a state budget by Sept. 15.

Senate Republicans said they would be back on June 25 to “pass bipartisan bills and a bipartisan budget,” according to a party spokesperson. But Senate President Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, said he won’t let Republicans control the agenda. If the stalemate continues, Kotek could call a special session to pass budgets this summer, allowing school boards to approve supplemental budgets with updated totals.

Jim Green, executive director of the Oregon School Boards Association, said the association hasn’t heard about major funding problems from districts caused by the legislative delay, though there may be outliers — such as smaller, more rural districts — that are disproportionately affected.

If lawmakers don’t meet the September deadline, Green said Oregonians should expect schools to cut back, perhaps with furlough days and staff layoffs that would affect students and families across the state. 

Green added that he doesn’t expect the $10.2 billion proposal to change, “barring some cataclysmic event,” since both Democrats and Republicans say they consider school funding a priority.

Oregon Capital Chronicle

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: info@oregoncapitalchronicle.com. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

Natalie Pate is a freelance journalist and author based in Salem, Oregon. She covered education for the Statesman Journal for more than seven years and was the co-founder and lead of the Salem Storytellers Project. She was an Investigative Reporters and Editors Fellow in 2021 and remains an IRE mentor and member of the Education Writers Association. She was named a 2022 EWA Reporting Fellow and published an in-depth series that summer on prison literacy programs. She is a graduate of Willamette University, where she majored in politics and French. Find her on Twitter @NataliePateGwin.