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Troubled Oregon Districts Push for Tax Levies

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Hundreds of students, chanting "we want schools," marched on the administration building of the Lincoln County School District in Newport, Ore., earlier this month demanding that schools reopen this fall. Officials closed the schools three days into the school year after local residents declined to approve a new tax levy to keep the 4,000-student, 300-teacher district in operation.

The schools will remain closed at least until Sept. 20, when another tax vote is scheduled.

Other districts in the state may have to close also if residents do not pass tax levies this week.

Residents in 55 other districts will vote on property-tax levies, with two additional districts scheduled to vote in November, according to Larry Austin, spokesman for the state department of education.

The districts needing to pass levies serve almost 38 percent of all students in the state. They include six of the state's ten largest districts--Salem, Eugene, North Clackamas, Klamath County, Bend, and Lapine.

In the 36 districts that submitted levies to the electorate on Aug. 9, only 12 levies were approved, according to Mr. Austin.

Property taxes provide about 60 percent of the operating funds for local schools; the state contributes 30 percent; and miscellaneous sources and the federal government provide 10 percent of the money used to operate schools, Mr. Austin said.

About 147 of the state's 309 school districts do not have adequate permanent tax bases to support schools. Residents in these districts must annually vote for substantial additional property-tax levies to keep schools in operation. In some districts, there is no permanent tax base to support schools and local support must be provided annually by a levy.

The 12,100-student North Clackamas School District--Oregon's fifth largest--will "close immediately" if the electorate does not approve its tax levy this week, according to William H. Dierdorff, business manager for the suburban Portland district.

There, tax levies submitted to the electorate have already been rejected three times--in May, June, and August.

Unlike some Oregon school districts that have a permanent tax base that by law can be increased by as much as 6 percent every year, North Clackamas has never been able to get voters to approve a base level of support for schools, Mr. Dierdorff said.

Tax Levies Rejected

This year, voters have rejected tax levies because they think that "property taxes provide too high a percentage of support" for schools, according to Mr. Dierdorff.

Oregon has no sales tax, and property taxes have been pushed upward by cuts in state aid for schools--financed primarily by the state income tax--and a disastrous decline in collections on local timber taxes, a significant contributor to many districts' budgets.

Oregon ranks 43rd among states in the amount that state funds provide for schools, according to the National Education Association's research department.

In 1981, the latest year for which statistics are available, the statewide property-tax effort was 30 percent higher than the national average, according to figures from the Advisory Council on Intergovernmental Relations, an autonomous federal agency that monitors state and local governments. (But because Oregon has no sales tax, the total state and local tax effort for that year was only about one percent higher than the national average, according to the advisory council.)

Property taxes provide about 65 percent of the North Clackamas district's operating funds, though they accounted for only about 50 percent of funds three years ago, according to Mr. Dierdorff. (State support has declined from 34 percent to 24 percent of the district's budget over the three-year period, Mr. Dierdorff says.)

In the nearby Estacada School District, which has enough money to remain open until Oct. 7 if its tax levy is not approved this week, the percentage of state support has dropped from 44 percent to 39 percent over the last two years, according to Ted W. Zinzer, accountant for the district.

The district's permanent tax-base provides only $271,000--far short of the $7 million needed to operate the 2,150-student district, according to Mr. Zinzer.

Many voters have rejected establishing a permanent tax base because they feel they have more say over school budgets and activities if they have "the power to open and close the schools," according to Mr. Austin of the state department of education.

One of the reasons voters are rejecting tax levies this year, Mr. Austin says, is that they are seeking an increase in their property taxes to support some school budgets that are declining. The proposed levy that failed in Lincoln County, for ex- Continued on Page 15

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ample, would have raised revenues from property taxes by 12 percent, but would not have provided 12 percent more dollars for schools, Mr. Austin says, noting that since the property-tax share of support for schools has increased, tax levies get higher, but schools do not receive more money.

Noting that other hard-pressed states, such as Michigan, have had unprecedented success with local school levies this summer, Mr. Austin argued that "the recovery has hit other states faster than ours. This is timber country, and housing just has not rebounded."

The increase in property taxes is also spurring an outcry for a tax-limitation measure patterned after California's Proposition 13, according to Mr. Austin. (A measure that would limit property taxes to 1.5 percent of assessed valuation and limit the annual increase in property valuation to 2 percent or the increase in the Consumer Price Index, whichever is less, narrowly failed being passed by voters last year. (See Education Week, Sept. 22, 1982.)

The pressure for tax reform is so great that last week Gov. Victor G. Atiyeh called a special session of the legislature to discuss state initiatives that could help avert such a movement. What the legislature does in its special session, school officials said, is not likely to bail out those districts with tax levies slated for this week. Some legislators have proposed introducing a state sales tax that would provide more money for schools.

Districts are making unusual efforts to ensure that their levies are approved this week. Some are cutting millions of dollars from proposed budgets to demonstrate fiscal responsibility, and others are sponsoring meetings and distributing pamphlets and information to draw attention to the importance of the tax-levy vote.

In Salem School District 24-J--the state's second largest district--a citizens' group calling itself the "Yes for Your Schools Committee" is campaigning door-to-door for the property-tax levy.

"This is a critical election. We don't want the same thing to happen in Salem that happened in Lincoln County," said Jean Kempe-Ware, communications coordinator for the 23,378-student district.

Salem schools will run out of funds "by the end of October" if voters do not approve the tax levy, Ms. Kempe-Ware said.

The Salem district has a permanent tax base, but it was established in 1917 and provides only $3.6 million for schools, Ms. Ware explained.

The district's proposed budget for 1983-84 is $73.1 million. Officials have cut a total of $2.5 million from the budget since May 17.

Some $1.7 million has been cut since the last tax-levy vote in August.

Programs affected by cuts include athletics, transportation, guidance, computer education, bilingual education, special education, middle-school supplies, and capital improvements, according to Ms. Kempe-Ware.

To please voters, the North Clakamas district has cut $2 million from its proposed $43.4-million budget. The district plans to defer maintenance costs, eliminate some student activities, cut transportation expenses, and reduce funding for instructional development and support.

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