Our Opinion: Keep investing in school staffing levels
If you're a Portland taxpayer and still furious over the school district's vote-and-switch tactics in the last capital bond measure, join the club.
If you're still unclear how a measure that on Election Day 2017 promised to build four new schools now can only build three, we're right there with you.
But if you're thinking the levy on the Nov. 5 ballot is a chance to take a stand and cut off the money flow to Portland Public Schools, we're going to ask you to reconsider. Here's why:
The 2017 construction bond measure, which came up $190 million short of what's needed, was an inexcusable breach of public trust by an administration and school board that failed to ask tough questions. And even though the school officials who oversaw that fiasco are largely gone, the new regime and current board still have work to do between now and next fall, when they will ask voters for more money to maintain, repair and build schools.
But next month's levy is not about that.
Measure 26-207 is the renewal of a five-year "local option" levy needed to keep more than 800 of the district's 2,900 teaching positions funded. The money is in addition to the "permanent" property taxes paid to the district and state income taxes, which come back to the district in a formula pegged to enrollments.
It is, in effect, an "extra" property tax that Portlanders have voted to pay for the past 19 years. And unless they want to see precipitous cutbacks in schools, they should continue to do so.
The levy, last approved (overwhelmingly) in 2014, would raise $540 million over five years. It maintains a rate of $1.99 per $1,000 of assessed value, meaning that the owner of a house assessed at $250,000 would continue to pay just under $500 a year in taxes.
Local option levies are a byproduct of Oregon's Measure 5, which, in 1990, capped permanent property taxes and forced state lawmakers to equalize school funding across the state.
That was a benefit to students and parents in districts that had traditionally spent little on schools, but put districts with high costs, including Portland Public Schools, at a disadvantage.
Seven years later, voters approved Measure 50, another property tax limitation plan that had the side effect of allowing districts to propose local option levies such as Measure 26-207.
You can argue that this is a stupid way to fund schools, and we'd agree. But it's the reality in Oregon, and there is no way Oregon's largest district can lose more than a quarter of its teaching positions without doing some serious damage to its 50,000 students — and the local economy.
The levy ensures that there are enough teachers for the district to maintain a robust arts curriculum, as well as offerings of career and technical education. The teaching positions are in every building, ranging from four staffers at Skyline Elementary to 25 at Franklin High School.
The levy money is even more important now that lawmakers have stepped up state funding. Portland Public Schools is slated to get about $39 million. The money comes with some serious strings attached, but being fully staffed will ensure that the district's taxpayers get the most from that cash infusion.
Oregonians take for granted that most families in the state's largest city send their kids to public schools. That's not the case in many urban districts, and the local levy is one reason that Portland remains an outlier.
If that's an example of "Keeping Portland Weird," we're all for it. We urge voters to support Measure 26-207.
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