Voters to decide levies for schools, libraries and art
By Cari Hachmann/ The Portland Observer
Advocates for local schools, libraries and the arts are counting on Portlanders with shared priorities to vote yes on three tax measures coming before voters in the Nov. 6 vote-by-mail general election. But will Portlanders be able to put their money behind their support for these public services?
Lindsey O’Brien, communications director for the Our Portland Our Schools school bond campaign, said there are several priorities local residents have for their city, but calls the need to upgrade facilities at Portland Public Schools a vital investment for the future.
The last times the Portland School District passed bond measures were in 1995 and 1945. This year, coming on the tail of an economic downturn in the economy, there’s added peril in asking for approval of a property tax measure.
Still, O’Brien said it’s been inspiring to see the level of commitment for the school bond (Measure 26-144) among residents.
“It’s a stressful time for a lot of people, but we really need to do this now,” O’Brien said. “Great schools are important to everyone in the city and the more people know about it, the more enthusiastic their support for it.”
Jessica Jarrett Miller is a supporter of the Arts Income Tax (Measure 26-146) which will fund arts education and access to an arts curriculum for elementary students. Miller said her Arts Can advocacy network has been working with schools, the arts community and businesses for the past four years to develop this fund. She points to the need by citing the fact that 8 of 10 local elementary schools don’t have art teachers.
“We know this is a very significant priority for Portlanders,” said Miller. “We wouldn’t be on the ballot if we didn’t think this is something Portlanders were excited to vote yes on in November.”
If voters say yes to the library district tax (Measure 26-143), property owners within Multnomah County will pay an extra 35 cents for every $1,000 in assessed property value over the current library levy of 89 cents per $1,000 for a total of $1.24 per $1,000. The levy will cost the average home owner an extra $49 per year.
Instead of the current system of temporary library levies that voters have to renew every three to five years, which has left the library subject to huge budget cuts, the library tax district would be a permanent, dedicated funding source for Multnomah County libraries.
Those in favor of the library district tax argue that the library is a vital source to schools and education and for reading and learning. The tax will provide stable funding for libraries into the future, restore recent cuts in library hours, and protect and restore programs for children, students, seniors and jobseekers.
Those against the new tax argue that Multnomah County has historically been very generous to the library. On a per resident basis, the opponents argue that the local library system costs taxpayers twice as much as library systems across the country. Another argument against a library district is that it will give permanent taxing authority to a group of unelected government employees who will no longer have to answer to voters.
If voters say yes to the Portland Public Schools measure, it will authorize $482 million of general obligation bonds to upgrade schools. Franklin, Grant and Roosevelt High Schools, along with Faubion preK-8 school in northeast Portland, would get complete remodels. Other schools would benefit from upgrades to leaking roofs, strengthened against earthquakes, and provide for increased disability access. All middle school science classrooms would be upgraded, and the district could repay previous capital cost loans.
The eight-year school bond would charge property owners $1.10 per $1,000 in assessed property value. For the owner of a home with $150,000 in assessed value, that comes to about $165 a year for eight years.
Portland Public Schools is the largest school district in Oregon with 78 schools and 47,000 students. More than half of the schools were built before 1940 and only two have been built within the last 30 years.
Those in favor of the school bond argue that it’s time to re-invest in our city’s schools. Backing the bond’s suggested improvements, advocates say learning improves with better learning environments. Those against argue that new buildings are no guarantee to student success.
The current average graduation rate for PPS schools is 62 percent and nearly half of graduates fall below standardized math and reading skills. Critics say the school district should close and consolidate low-enrollment schools, so remaining schools become stronger.
The Art Income Tax would levy a $35 tax per year on all city residents with exceptions of those individuals living below the federal poverty level. Estimated to raise annual funds of $12 million, the new tax will pay to hire more arts and music teachers for kindergarten through 5th grade in the Portland, Centennial, David Douglas, Reynolds and Riverdale school districts. The tax monies would be administered by the Regional Arts and Cultural Council.
Supporters point to the steep decline in arts and music programs in Portland Public Schools. In just two years, PPS dropped all arts instruction in 22 schools. Advocates say this measure ensures every Portland elementary student receives an arts education, which has proven to help children reach their full potential, raise test scores, graduation rates and college admittance.
Only 18 percent of Portland elementary schools provide art instruction compared to 83 percent nationally, and 58 percent of PPS schools provide music education compared to 94 percent nationally.
Those against the Art Income Tax see it unfairly impacting people who are financially struggling, stay-at-home-spouses and college students. City Commissioner-elect Steve Novick has called the proposed tax regressive.
Overall, combining the tax measures for schools, libraries and the arts represent an 8 to 9 percent increase over last year’s average property tax bill, officials said.