Five Ore. Districts OK Local-Option Taxes in Mail-In Vote

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As part of a highly unusual vote-by-mail primary, voters in more than a dozen Oregon school districts last week had their first chance in a decade to increase funding for their schools by raising local property taxes.

Results of the mail-in election were still being counted last week, but unofficial tallies showed that levies passed in five of the 13 school districts that had added local-option taxes to the ballot in the state's primary race. The state has 198 districts, most of which chose not to consider a local-option tax.

A $27 million, five-year levy passed in the 18,000-student Eugene district. But about 100 miles north in the 56,000-student Portland district, a $78 million, five-year levy failed because of insufficient turnout.

While 65 percent of the voters who cast ballots in Portland approved of the measure, voter turnout was only 44 percent. In order for such measures to pass, districts had to win a double majority, meaning that at least 50 percent of eligible voters had to cast ballots, and a majority of those ballots had to be in favor of the tax hike.

George Russell

In 1990, the legislature passed a measure that capped property-tax rates and put the bulk of the burden of financing schools on the state. That move tightened the belt in districts statewide.

"If we had just kept up with inflation increases, we would have $10 million more now than we do," said George Russell, the superintendent of the Eugene district.

Restrictions Eased

In last year's session of the legislature, which meets every two years, lawmakers agreed to ease the restriction on property taxes and let individual districts try to drum up school funding through the local-option tax. The tax applies only to a portion of the market value of a piece of property.

A handful of efforts launched since the restriction was lifted and before the primary election were successful. Voters in Corvallis, for example, passed a $15 million, five-year local-option tax last November to aid the 7,300-student district there. Portland, the state's largest district, has not yet been so fortunate. As a result of the tax cap, class sizes increased, departments were cut, and books became outdated because the district could not afford to replace them, said Lew Frederick, the district's spokesman. The cuts amounted to "corporate anorexia," he said.

More than 400 teaching positions have been cut since 1990, Mr. Frederick added.

District officials in Portland had hoped to use the money from the local-option tax to fill 170 of the positions that were cut and to replace textbooks beginning this fall. Now they plan to put the tax measure on the ballot again in the November election, when a double majority will not be required for passage. If the levy passes in November, the proceeds will be available at the beginning of the 2001-02 school year.

In Eugene, about 60 teaching positions will be spared because of the levy that passed there, according to Superintendent Russell, whose district had a $6 million shortfall in its $116 million budget this year. Some middle school, athletic, and special education programs will escape the ax as well.

The success of the district's levy was due to "a tremendous grassroots effort" that involved parents, teachers, and community members, Mr. Russell said.

That effort could be seen throughout the state, according to Shannon Priem, a spokeswoman for the Oregon School Boards Association. Because of the double-majority requirement, districts placed increased effort on simply getting residents to vote, she said.

"If they don't," Ms. Priem said, "then the silent, apathetic voter will be determining the fate of the schools."

Last fall, Gov. John Kitzhaber proposed a three-pronged plan to address the stability, equity, and adequacy of school funding in Oregon by amending the state constitution.

Vol. 19, Issue 37, Page 26

Published in Print: May 24, 2000, as Five Ore. Districts OK Local-Option Taxes in Mail-In Vote
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