SCHOOL FINANCING STILL UNDER DEBATE

March 23, 2001 11:00 pm

SALEM A legal opinion from the Legislative Counsels Office may end the debate over whether specific school districts get to keep a new round of federal funds without losing state support.

My guess is thats the way its going to come down, said State Sen. Ken Messerle, R-Coos Bay, Wednesday in a conference call with Curry County officials.

His outlook on the funds approved by Congress last fall to help counties and school districts impacted by federal forest lands has wavered since the Legislative session opened in January.

At first, legislators seemed willing to ensure that the funds went to the school districts directly. Later, there was pressure to blend the funds into regular timber revenues, which are subtracted from state support in an effort to provide equalization in funds among school districts.

The specific allocation to each school district in Curry County remains unresolved, but Brookings-Harbor School District could get between $150,000 to $250,000 in the first year, according to Superintendent Dr. Paul Prevenas.

The Legislative Counsels opinion that the new funds are outside the state support formula may signal an end to the debate. If thats where the law is, then its a non-issue, said Messerle.

He and State Rep. Wayne Krieger, R-Gold Beach, participate in a weekly conference call with area officials, sponsored by the Curry Coastal Pilot.

School funding consumed much of this weeks conversation, with the legislators worried about the $5.2 billion planned in initial state budgets for education. State revenue forecasts for 2001-03 continue to drop, with the next forecast due in May for the final round of legislative budget decisions.

The dropping revenue has created some pressure to keep the kicker, funds from this years budget that will go back to taxpayers if state revenues are more than 2 percent above what was projected two years ago.

The problem is if the kicker is used for on-going budget items, the pressure gets even worse in following years, Messerle said. He suggested using the kicker funds for the one-time repayment of federal retirees for taxes they were charged several years ago, and putting the rest in contingency.

I think we need an ending balance, to build up some reserves, Messerle said.

Messerle is also trying to find funds to protect state support for most of the South Coast school districts, where enrollment is dropping. Were trying to fund that outside the (state support) formula, he said. The current hope is to protect school district support for up to five years after their drop in enrollment.

Krieger and Messerle both defended higher state education standards when Prevenas challenged the states press for higher standards without additional funding.

It is a way of ensuring accountability, Messerle said. Nobody said it was perfect.

Ive heard good and bad, Krieger said.

Its really bad when you have to tell three-quarters of the sophomores that they are not meeting state standards, and then not give them any additional programs to help them meet the standards, Prevenas said. You cant keep having it both ways. Its a charade to say well have world-class education in this state without paying for it.

I dont believe were that far behind, said Krieger. We should be getting a good product.

In other topics, the legislators confirmed that the 2000 Census figures mean their districts will have to add area to pick up more population.

House District 48, held by Krieger, may have to expand up Highway 42 to Winston, and House District 47, held by Joanne Verger, D-Coos Bay, may have to grow north from Florence to include Yachats or Waldport, or perhaps go east to pick up Mapleton.

Messerles Senate District 24 covers both House districts. Overall, his district needs to grow by 12,800 people, he said.

Its either that or lose a House district on the coast, Messerle said.

Krieger also asked city of Brookings officials for information about Department of Environmental Quality fines or moratoriums in relation to waste water treatment plant improvements or operations. Krieger said rural legislators are complaining that DEQ is not holding Portland or other metropolitan areas to the same fines and standards.