Oregon tackles school-funding reform

Oregon's ``safety net'' for schools, a state constitutional amendment approved by voters in May, is now being called a ``safety noose'' by critics. The safety net was intended to prevent closing of schools when district voters turn down tax increases to support a district school system. It allows a system to operate at the funding level previously approved by voters.

But, explains Oregon superintendent of public education Verne A. Duncan, ``the net is not enough for many districts.''

Quality public education has been viewed in recent years as an essential element in efforts to attract a diversity of industry to Oregon, which has long been dependent on timber for its economic well-being. At the same time, the concept of local control of schools and heavy reliance on local property taxes for funding have been traditional.

The state pays only 29 percent of the cost of education, the second smallest percentage (next to New Hampshire) in the nation.

Now school officials are blaming such reliance on property taxes for giving the state's public educational system ``a black eye.''

Community resistance to raising school budgets has coincided in recent years with a sluggish Oregon economy.

Nine times since 1976 schools have had to close their doors because local voters refused to approve the funds needed to operate them.

Levy increases are sought in order to meet rising education costs. Forcing school districts to operate without additional funds can result in reduction in teaching staffs, curricula, and activity programs, and cancellation of school busing. Some typical situations:

Parents in Hillsboro were crying ``blackmail'' Aug. 31 when the district began the year without school bus service. Two weeks later voters rejected a $2.5 million levy that resulted in cutting 50 teachers and the number of classes students can take. Also, the district will not fund any sports, including Glencoe High School's state championship football team.

Angry students in LaGrande walked out of classes the day after the defeat of a $500,000 levy that left vacant teaching positions unfilled and eliminated all after-school activities. ``Our community decided, after a pretty open discussion, not to fund transportation for rural students, not to fund band, choir, drama, speech, vocational agriculture, and all sports,'' lamented superintendent Rich McCullough.

Major districts such as Gresham and Oregon City were hit especially hard by levy defeats because they had relied on supplementary funds to reduce their levies a year ago, before the safety net limitations existed.

``The safety net has given communities a false sense of security,'' Gresham superintendent Jim Jenkins said.

Despite widespread cutbacks in these districts, some local booster groups were being permitted to restore athletic and activity programs through the use of private fundraising.

In all, 37 of the state's 304 districts, enrolling about 65,000 students or 15 percent of those attending public schools in Oregon, are relying on safety net provisions to fund school operations this year.

State superintendent Duncan says the safety net amendment can only be regarded as ``a first step toward school finance reform.''

Future steps will be plotted by the governor's Commission on School Funding Reform, a group of citizens and lawmakers created by the legislature last spring and directed by Gov. Neil Goldschmidt (D). The commission will produce a final report by Sept. 1, 1988.

After a flurry of levy failures in August, 19 districts across the state had chosen to resort to the safety net. Another 18 were added to the list as a result of levy elections Sept. 15.

A day earlier, Governor Goldschmidt had urged his commission on school funding to resist proposals for a state sales tax, which has been rejected by voters nine times in the past half-century.

``No single step will suffice,'' he cautioned, urging the group to seek ways to reduce reliance on property taxes, increase state support of schools to an ``ultimate goal of 50 percent,'' and develop greater equity for students and taxpayers.

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