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Is $8.1 Billion The Right Figure For Oregon School Funding? Good Question.

When Portland Public Schools released its draft budget this week, Interim Superintendent Bob McKean assumed the state would spend $8.1 billion on public schools over the next two years.

But lawmakers haven't approved a budget — and they won't for awhile.

The only two recommended budgets floating around Salem recommend significantly less than the $8.1 billion figure.

The problem is Oregon schools are entering budget season and need to start somewhere.

Lawmakers who decide how much money schools will receive are still months away from final spending numbers. And school districts want to exert a little pressure on legislators to put more money in the pot — without being unrealistic.

That's led a number of large school districts to plan for more state money than either Gov. Kate Brown or legislative leaders have proposed.

Brown proposed $8.02 billion for public schools in her recommended two-year budget for 2017-19. It includes tax increases. The budget framework from legislative leaders suggested $7.75 billion, without higher taxes.

School districts like Portland are basing their draft budgets on $8.1 billion. But is that figure reliable?

“I wish I knew,” said Rep. Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland.

As a member of the Education Sub-committee of Ways and Means, Smith Warner is in a position to know.

She said lawmakers are waiting for a revenue forecast in May, and they're working in the meantime on ways to raise revenue, particularly for public school classrooms. Those are only two of the reasons it's hard to pin down a good spending estimate for public schools.

“The short answer is it’s still too soon to know if that’s going to be a good number or not," Smith Warner said. "I can tell you right now, we are still working across the aisle to try to come up with some resolutions that are going to help us to get to the highest number that we can.”

Many Oregon school districts are anticipating cuts, even if the Legislature spends at that $8.1 billion level. Portland Public Schools' proposed budget would reduce the workforce by 134 positions, with many of them being teachers.

That's in spite of revenue being up from two years ago. The problem is that costs are up even more.

Portland Public Schools officials estimate the $8.1 billion spending amount from the state would be a boost of about 2 percent. But costs are up nearly 6 percent.

A coalition of school board members, administrators and unions estimate that "current service level" to avoid cuts to school districts would require $8.4 billion from the state.

Many legislators and school advocates argue Oregon's tax system does a poor job of filling state coffers amid the state's relatively strong economic conditions.

School boards generally try to get their budgets finalized by May, in part, so they can start preparing changes before the end of the school year.

But legislators say they may not be done with their budget until July.

Copyright 2017 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Rob Manning is a JPR content partner from Oregon Public Broadcasting. Rob has reported extensively on Oregon schools and universities as OPB's education reporter and is now a news editor.