Offbeat financing of Oregon's schools forces frequent closings

All 4,500 students of the Sandy, Oregon, elementary school district went home last Thursday for an unscheduled three-week vacation. The schools won't reopen until at least Dec. 5 -- and then only if, on Dec. 3, voters approve the district's fourth levy attempt to provide school funding. Meanwhile, on the southern Oregon coast, an eight-day forced closure of Port Orford schools ended last week when voters approved a levy to let the district reopen its schools.

This fall a record number of Oregon school districts began classes without voter-approved operating funds. A quarter of the way through the school year, a dozen districts in all -- enrolling 30,000 of the state's 426,000 students -- still do not have enough money to operate through next June, and face either drastic program cuts or emergency elections to stave off more closures.

The latest run of school closures has sparked renewed criticism of Oregon's unique system for financing public education.

``We're the only state in the nation where schools can close,'' says Roseburg School Superintendent Richard Eisenhauer. The Roseburg district narrowly averted school closure in October, and Superintendent Eisenhauer is now leading a drive by frustrated school superintendents to put the issue at the top of the state's political agenda. ``I believe it's grossly unfair and unacceptable to have a system where schools can close. I believe the message that sends out is devastating to Oregon,'' Eisenhauer said .

The superintendents plan to pressure political leaders and front-runners for next year's governor's race, to come up with a solution.

Under Oregon's property-tax-dependent school financing, school districts may not operate at a deficit -- and the state has no legal responsibility to provide money if local voters refuse to support them.

The Sandy elementary district is the eighth Oregon district since 1976 to undergo forced closure. At least two other districts will close within three weeks if they don't obtain operating levies at an emergency election approved by Oregon Secretary of State Barbara Roberts.

One answer to Oregon's perennial school finance dilemma was rejected at the polls two months ago when voters, defeated a 5 percent sales tax measure by a 3.5 to 1 ratio. The measure, crafted by the 1985 legislature, was designed to stabilize school funding by replacing local property taxes with a large portion of the tax measure's revenue that would be dedicated to school funding.

Oregonians, however, show little inclination to moderate their historic and vehement opposition to the sales tax, which was voted down 8 to 1 when it was previously submitted in 1969.

Over the past 15 years the state's voters have also turned down two proposals to guarantee every school district a firm financial foundation. Although 180 of the state's 300 districts now have adequate voter-approved tax bases, the remaining districts live with a system of annual levying for school funds. Critics say the process eats up time, money, and energy, and erodes the educators' abilities to plan for curriculum reforms and other program improvements.

``The Oregon system of school finance is strictly one of bartering with the public,'' said Port Orford Superintendent Tom Wood.

Tom Radcliffe, president of the Port Orford teacher's union said it's more like punishment and appeasement. ``The public punishes the school district and the school district appeases the public'' by making deeper cuts in its budget each time its levy goes down, he explained.

Last week, there was talk of challenging the constitutionality of the system. The Oregon constitution requires the legislature to ``provide by law for the establishment of a uniform and general system of public schools.''

``Under the current setting in which we are operating, we are not meeting our constitutional obligation,'' Secretary of State Roberts declared. Superintendent Eisenhauer said, ``The state's supposed to be responsible for equal educational opportunity. . . . There's nothing quite as unequal as having your schools closed.''

The constitutionality of Oregon's property-tax system of financing schools has already stood up to one legal challenge.

In 1976, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled against plaintiffs who argued in a class-action suit that the system discriminates against students in tax-poor districts. Those districts must tax property owners more heavily to raise the same amount of money as ``rich'' districts that levy taxes on valuable timber, industrial, or commercial property.

Glaring disparities in tax burdens remain between Oregon's ``have'' and ``have-not'' school districts. Last year, one timber-rich district had a school tax rate of $1.32 per $1,000 assessed value, while another district, serving a suburban community near Eugene, taxed at a rate of $25.54 per $1,000.

Faced with a continuing economic recession, voters in many hard-pressed communities rebel against high property taxes by defeating school levies. And many residents prefer to keep schools on a short leash by demanding accountability through their annual voting on levies.

Meanwhile, students and teachers in Sandy and other troubled districts face untimely interruptions that teachers say won't ever really be made up.

Some teachers, frustrated with the uncertainty, look elsewhere for work. ``I guess I'm just tired of wondering,'' said Terry Hardie, a Spanish and language arts teacher at Sandy's Cedar Ridge school. ``If there are jobs out there I intend to look for them.''

``I don't think it's very fair that we don't have the choice of an education,'' said Bonita Vittzelberger, as she cleaned out her locker at Port Orford's Pacific High School. ``Somebody else chooses for us.'' -- 30 --

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