Where have all the dollars gone?

News stories about school budget crises have become as rampant as dandelions this spring. All over the US, citizens are voting on measures to keep the budget ax from falling on schools.

The same thing is happening in my town. Monday, I voted in favor of a budget override, mostly to help insulate the schools from what look to be disastrous cuts.

But I wonder where it will all end. How many more letters will the school superintendent need to write, urging voters to come to the rescue? How much does it cost to have good schools? And what happened to all those budget surpluses we heard about in the late 1990s?

Those questions are being asked in Oregon, where 40 percent of the state's students will have had their school year shortened due to cuts.

One of the hardest hit has been Hillsboro, a Portland suburb. Facing a $15-million shortfall, the district started summer vacation 17 days early, on May 23. In fact, 31 out of 198 districts in Oregon changed their calendars.

"That's the shocking thing," says Gene Evans of the Oregon Department of Education. "If students aren't in school for the minimum number of hours, how are we going to meet standards?"

Multnomah County, which includes Portland, passed a local income tax to keep its schools afloat. And by opting out of the state's fiscal woes, the county is now the envy of its neighbors, who failed to pass similar measures.

It's troubling that wealthier districts can rally taxpayer support, while poorer districts are often left to fend for themselves.

I live in a town that can afford to support schools. But I feel a kinship with parents in Oregon and elsewhere who are wondering what next year's budget will bring.

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