The Oregon Senate unanimously passed a $5.7 billion spending plan for schools Tuesday, well in advance of approving an overall state budget.

The Oregon Senate unanimously passed a $5.7 billion spending plan for schools Tuesday, well in advance of approving an overall state budget.

The Senate's school-funding level is $100 million more than Gov. John Kitzhaber's initial proposal, but nearly $1 billion less than what school leaders say they need to maintain current service.

Sen. Jason Atkinson, R-Central Point, said he's been pushing for 10 years to have a K-12 budget approved within the first three months of the legislative session.

"It's a huge personal win for me," he said. "The fact that it was done by three people from Southern Oregon is a major victory."

Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, and Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, were instrumental in creating the compromise school budget, which will go to the House tomorrow for approval, then to Kitzhaber's desk for signing, possibly before the week is over.

Buckley and Richardson are co-chairmen, along with Sen. Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin, of the Joint Ways and Means Committee.

Atkinson said he and other legislators have pushed to approve a school budget plan early in the session to give educators a better idea where they stand in completing their own budgets.

"This is not a Republican or Democratic issue," he said. "This is about the institution of the Senate making right what's been wrong for so long."

Buckley said he doesn't expect a unanimous vote from the House. Some of his colleagues will demand more money be spent on education, while others will want to spend less.

The $5.7 billion approved by the Senate is about what K-12 education received in the current biennial budget. Schools say because of increased costs, they need a $6.7 billion budget to maintain current service levels and avoid layoffs.

"Part of that increase is health care costs," Buckley said. "They are increasing so much faster than regular inflation."

He said the Ashland School District has brought health care costs down 18 percent in the past two years by implementing a wellness program and opting for self-insurance. However, the school district is struggling to contain health care costs into the future, he said.

Buckley said legislators will now turn their attention to the challenges facing human services and public safety.

Buckley is particularly interested in preserving in-home care for senior citizens.

Richardson said the Senate vote and the expected House approval vindicate him in the wake of union attacks accusing him of wanting to make excessive cuts to schools and human services.

"Regardless of what these advocates might say, the co-chairs are doing the best we can with the resources available," Richardson said. "In the House there are those who are more likely to make this a political vote than they should. My expectation is that represents a very small number of votes."

Damian Mann is a reporter for the Mail Tribune. Reach him at 541-776-4476, or email dmann@mailtribune.com.