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The Linn-Benton Community College library and learning center is pictured. A legislative miscalculation means that a fund meant to give assistance to community college students may be $32 million short. 

Last year's Legislature allocated millions of dollars to support efforts in the state's public universities and community colleges to help students succeed.

That's a good thing. The money is used to help students who might be struggling with tuition payments or who need just a little bit of help to complete coursework. These often are cases where just a few hundred dollars could make the difference between a student being able to stay in school or being forced to drop out.

At the end of the 2017 legislative session, the Joint Ways and Means Committee was able to restore more than $70 million to the state's Public Universities Support Fund. It also allocated what it thought to be a proportional amount to a similar fund that serves students at the state's community colleges.

But the committee apparently made a mistake in its calculations for the community colleges, leaving that success fund for these schools millions of dollars short. The Legislature should do what it can in this short session to make up that unexpected (and apparently unintended) shortfall.

Without getting too deep into the weeds, here's apparently what happened:

First, it's important to remember a bit of background: Lawmakers last year were grappling with a substantial budget shortfall. It's fair to say that the final pieces of the budgetary puzzle didn't snap into place until late in the session.

Near the end of the session, the Joint Ways and Means Committee — the powerful panel that writes the state's budget — was able to find additional money for  these support funds, and added the $70 million to the University Support Fund. The committee also allocated an amount of money that it thought was proportionally the same for the similar community college fund.

But the calculation for the community college fund was off, by the tune of about $32 million, the colleges estimate. Here's why: When the state calculates public support for community colleges, it identifies what it calls "Total Public Resources," which includes local property tax support the colleges receive. (Linn-Benton Community College, of course, receives money from property tax levies that mid-valley voters have consistently, if narrowly, supported.) The state, trying to stretch its limited dollars to the fullest extent, then reduces its level of support by the local amount.

That all makes sense. In a better world, of course, there would be enough money to go around for all levels of public education in Oregon, but we are not yet at that place.

The problem here, though, is that the state, apparently inadvertently, backed out that local funding twice in its calculations for the student success fund for community colleges: Once earlier in the budget process and then, again, during 11th-hour budget calculations. 

The result: The success fund for the community colleges has been shortchanged by some $32 million, the colleges estimated last week in a press release. The hit to LBCC is estimated at about $2 million.

The impact of this shortfall is magnified by the fact that the money gets spread around to so many students. It's not at all a stretch to assume that this $2 million, meant to help students complete programs more quickly and to help them start jobs in high-demand fields, would give a hand to hundreds, if not thousands of students.

Community colleges are used to this kind of funding indignity; for a variety of reasons, these colleges almost always come last to Oregon's education funding trough, fighting for what's left after K-12 schools and the four-year schools get first shot.

But that doesn't mean the community colleges, or their students, should pay the price for what amounts to a legislative error in calculation. We have these short legislative sessions in large part to fix relatively small budget mistakes like this one. This should be a relatively easy fix. (mm)

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