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The colleges are 'first responders' because they can gear-up quickly to train workers in whatever field needs them.

Oregon's 17 community colleges aren't feeling the love. Gov. Kate Brown's original proposed budget for 2019-21 would have smacked them hard. The co-chairs of the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee came back with a proposal that also looks pretty stingy.

So the 17 colleges — locally, that includes Portland, Clackamas and Mt. Hood community colleges — are asking for significantly more.

We think they should get what they're asking for.

But with some caveats.

First, let's break down the numbers:

Ways and Means has suggested a budget for all 17 of them, collectively, $590 million. That'll mean significant cuts.

A total of $647 million would be a hold-harmless budget; that is, it would allow the colleges to maintain existing services, but will mean tuition increases ranging from 3.5 percent to 5 percent statewide.

The colleges are asking for $787 million: That's the hold-harmless figure, plus $70 million to double the number of graduates in career and technical education classes — think welding and nursing, among others. Plus, an additional $70 million for "wrap-around services" such as counseling and guidance, designed to get more students to walk across the stage and get handed a diploma.

That's a total request of $787 million for the 17 community colleges.

To be sure, neither Brown nor the Legislature is happy with the threadbare figures they've tossed around. The governor asked lawmakers to "find" an additional $2 billion for education this year. Lawmakers took a road show around the state last year to ask community leaders and business leaders about ways to make public education better. The ad hoc Joint Committee on Student Success is working right now to figure out how to meet those goals.

There is no bill yet, and nobody seems to know exactly what the proposal is going to look like. From everything we hear, the focus remains on a tax that primarily would fall on business and be earmarked exclusively for K-12 schools.

We favor the hunt for additional education revenue. Schools have been chronically underfunded in Oregon since the early 1990s and the era of so-called "tax reform," which made Oregon's short school calendar the punchline in a 2003 Doonesbury cartoon.

But the governor and the Legislature are doing themselves a disservice by focusing solely on K-12. Here's why.

First, because community colleges are "first responders" in the event of a recession. And every economist in sight says the next recession could hit by 2020 ... or perhaps later this year. The colleges are "first responders" because they can gear-up quickly to train workers in whatever field needs them. One oft-cited example: Vigor Industrial contacted PCC about 10 years ago and asked whether the college could train welders right there at Vigor's Swan Island facility. PCC said yes and opened the program ... eight weeks later.

It would take most universities eight years to do the study to indicate such a major might be possible. But community colleges are dexterous and deft. Need machinists? You got 'em. Need code-writers? Coming right up.

Second, any tax plan should include community colleges because they are vastly popular. One poll taken about a decade ago indicated that PCC was the most highly regarded educational institution in the metro area.

Who favors them? The business community, for one, because that's the pipeline for so many of their workers. Who would shoulder the burden of additional taxes to net that $2 billion for education? The business community.

Which gets to our request for the 17 college presidents: You need to be full-throated supporters of whatever funding plan comes out of the Joint Committee on Student Success. Within one week, our editorial board spoke to the presidents of all three community colleges. All three asked for additional funds. But all three hemmed and hawed when asked about how to find those funds.

President Mark Mitsui of PCC, President Lisa Skari of MHCC, President Tim Cook of CCC: You all have the ear of your respective business communities. You could be unrivaled champions for any new revenue proposals.

You should be carrying a banner to your many business advisory groups — "Yes, you'll pay more taxes. And yes, we'll train more of your workers." Such business backing is crucial to ensure that whatever the Legislature comes up can survive a referral to voters.

Lawmakers: When you're looking to add $2 billion, make sure community colleges benefit, then let those 17 presidents fan out around the state to champion your cause. You'd be crazy not to.

There's a commonly used statistic that $1 of taxpayer money going to a community college nets $7.30 in return as the college churns out workers. That's what's called "smart money."

What we're talking about here is ROI: Return on Investment. That's the lingua franca of both the business community, and the Legislature. And nobody speaks the lingo better than community colleges.

Pamplin Media Group

Editorial Board

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