Budget & Finance

Two Oregon Towns: Two Views on Taxes

By Rhea R. Borja — June 04, 2003 7 min read
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Twice a day, commuters on Highway 30 swoosh through this town on their way to and from Portland, 20 miles away.

On one side, they pass a decaying, mold-ridden middle school. On the other stands Scappoose High School, whose marquee proudly touts its sports teams. What it doesn’t say is that, to save money, the sports programs face steep reductions and the school will close 11 days early this year.

Two hours up the road, Broadway Middle School in the coastal town of Seaside, Ore., has added 12 classrooms and expanded its cafeteria and library. The school’s mid- ‘90s, multi-million-dollar face-lift also created verdant inner courtyards. That is where local master gardeners teach 6th graders science lessons.

The contrasts between the schools are striking. And while there are several ways to explain the differences, one undeniable factor is that middle-class voters in Scappoose have repeatedly rejected tax measures for schools—including its most recent levy, proposed on May 20. Meanwhile, Seaside voters, who are more economically diverse than their Scappoose counterparts, have time and again opened their pocketbooks to help schools.

That difference is crucial in Oregon, where school districts, which get about 70 percent of their revenue from the state, are suffering steep budget cuts as the state’s economy spirals downward.

Paying for the Basics

Reflecting the dearth of state aid available to them, some districts have turned to local tax measures to provide basic services and to repair their schools. But the view among many voters is that schools don’t need the money. Residents’ objections to more taxes, coupled with tough state voting requirements for such measures, mean few school districts have been able to pass revenue hikes.

Districts that have won approval of new tax levies, such as Seaside, are not using them, however, to pay for enrichment or added materials and staffing—what such measures originally were meant for. Instead, they’re helping core needs, such as teacher salaries and other operating costs, said John Marshall, the director of legislative services for the Oregon School Boards Association.

“These were never intended to provide the basics or keep [schools] from the brink of disaster,” he said of local revenue measures.

‘Down in Flames’

Scappoose Superintendent John Matt wasn’t surprised that his district’s May 20 levy attempt failed. Voters also rejected a $33.4 million school construction bond last November, as they did a $15 million construction bond earlier this year.

But Mr. Matt still was disappointed. “We went down in flames,” he said on a cloudy afternoon the day after the election. “For my own emotional sanity, I thought: ‘If this one [passes], great. If not, then I’m prepared.’”

Even more painful to the supporters of the spending measures is that the gap between winning and losing came down to a few hundred votes each time.

The failure of the measures and state budget cuts have forced Scappoose school leaders, already struggling with a $1.9 million shortfall, to end the school year 11 days early, lay off 18 teachers and other employees, ax programs, and take out a $750,000 loan to shore up the district’s $14.1 million budget.

Morale in the 2,200-student district is abysmal. Class sizes have grown, and principals depend on fund- raisers and donations to pay for classroom window blinds, reams of paper, and other ordinary items.

“Times are tough for everybody,” said Jan Hildreth, the chairwoman of the Scappoose school board. “But it’s very, very sad that for a relatively minimal amount of tax dollars, voters weren’t willing to do this for kids.”

The levy would have cost homeowners an extra 54 cents on every $1,000 of assessed value for the next five years.

The defeats of the tax and bond measures mean that the district’s maintenance costs are skyrocketing. Mold had infiltrated the middle school so thoroughly last year that it took $300,000 to clean up the problem. The high school’s lack of insulation racks up gigantic heating bills, the superintendent said.

Mr. Matt pointed to several reasons the most recent measure failed: the state’s weak economy; Columbia County’s high unemployment rate, 8.1 percent; and the fact that only 25 percent of Scappoose households have school-age children.

A plan to go to a four-day school week also chafed the community and school staff members. All the employees are already taking pay cuts because of the shortened school year. The school board scrapped the four-day plan right before the levy vote.

Need for Frugality

But the damage had been done. “People were angry [about the four-day week],” said Jennifer Howard, the principal of Scappoose Middle School. “They voted with their hearts, not their heads.”

She and other school leaders add that the district gets considerable support through its parent organizations and volunteers. Indeed, fund raising has kept Scappoose competitive academically with other schools, they say.

For example, Grant Watts Elementary School’s annual fund-raiser brought in $27,000 by auctioning donated items, including a kayak, a piano, and handmade Adirondack chairs. The money will buy new mathematics textbooks, a new fence, and teacher supplies.

The $16,000 that the Otto H.H. Petersen School raised this year through selling chocolate will pay for classroom technology and school assemblies. The funds will also help offset the cost of field trips for students, who are in the 4th through 6th grades.

And the high school boosters’ club raised $32,000 in its annual spring Chinook fishing derby for athletics and other programs.

School staff members have also learned to be frugal. A middle school science teacher, who had to buy textbooks with few dollars, called three publishers and found one who accepted his “bottom line” offer. Principals at times also answer their own phones, and cover for absent teachers instead of hiring substitutes.

But while educators here in Scappoose put on brave faces, they say the impact of the failed tax measures isn’t lost on students.

“You never know how this will bubble up in kids,” said Christine Stetzer, the principal of Grant Watts Elementary. “One kid said to his grandmother, ‘I really need to bring my allowance to school.’ He thought that if he didn’t, he’d lose his teacher.”

Success at the Polls

On the north coast of Oregon, in striking contrast, voters in the 1,650-student Seaside district have passed four local tax measures since 1992, totaling $15 million. The district enlisted community leaders, parents, and students to help pass the measures.

It is the only school district in Oregon to pass four consecutive local tax measures. Consequently, district officials have been able to repair school buildings and cushion the blow to academic programs from cuts in state aid. Staff morale is still high, the officials say, and test scores, most already above the state average, are rising even as more English-language learners enter the system.

But not everything is rosy. Superintendent Douglas Dougherty said that while the Seaside district has a healthier financial outlook than many others, it hasn’t escaped the budget ax.

State cuts of more than $1 million have left the district with about one-third of the state funding it normally receives, he said. Factor in rising insurance costs, teacher pay, and other expenses, and Seaside must hack spending by $720,000 for the 2003-04 school year. That’s a lot for a system whose budget tops $12 million.

But had the local-option levy not passed, that $720,000 would have been doubled, Mr. Dougherty said. Some teaching positions still have to be cut and some programs reduced. The situation just won’t be as bad as it could have been.

"[The levy] is our saving grace,” agreed Don Wickersham, the principal of Seaside High School. “It allowed us to survive.”

Instead of cutting sports altogether, the high school will reduce spending on athletics next school year by 25 percent, with student athletes paying higher fees. Instead of closing the library, the school will cut the hours that a librarian is on-staff. A streamlined vocational education program will also be salvaged.

Seaside was once a “Cadillac district,” Mr. Wickersham said. That changed in 1991, with the passage of Measure 5, a state initiative that shifted most of the responsibility for school funding from the local to the state level. Overnight, Seaside began counting its pennies.

Though it is located in Clatsop County, one of the poorest in the state, the community also rallied to save its schools.

In 1992, local voters approved a $7.3 million bond to build a spacious high school library, gleaming science laboratories, and to renovate the middle school, among other projects. Four years later, voters approved a $2.8 million bond for new technology equipment, and renovations to make buildings accessible to people with disabilities.

Then, in 2000, voters approved a $3 million levy for operating costs—and renewed it for three years last November, saving a variety of academic programs and classroom positions.

Sheila Roley, the principal of Seaside’s Broadway Middle School, says the success comes from the district’s close ties to the community and its ability to tell its story, as well as excellent leadership and teachers.

“People choose to live in a small coastal community not because of the sun or the nightlife, but because of the small-town atmosphere,” Ms. Roley said. “We’re self-sufficient. We’re not the suburb of somebody else.”

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