Calls, e-mails from worried parents spur tax plans to save schools

They gathered in a Mount Tabor home on Super Bowl Sunday Ñ a dozen of them, the television not even turned on Ñ and decided this: Politicians will listen to parents who are worried about their kids.

The parents who met that day to talk about Portland school funding were hardly political neophytes. The meeting was at the home of Portland school board member Julia Brim-Edwards, wife of state Treasurer Randall Edwards.

Sitting in her living room, eating chips, peanuts and popcorn, were seasoned political strategists and longtime Portland education advocates. Some of them had helped dig the ruts into Interstate 5 between Portland and Salem, driving year after year to the Capitol to lobby the Legislature for more money for education.

But a funny thing happened in the days after that meeting.

Their cause went grass-roots Ñ and faster than anyone imagined it could.

Panicked Portland school district parents who had been calling private schools or contemplating moving to Vancouver, Wash., because of budget cuts began hearing, through phone calls and e-mails, about the parents' organization Help Out Public Education, or HOPE.

The parents stopped worrying aloud with one another about Portland's schools and started expressing their worries Ñ through phone calls, e-mail and en masse Ñ to local politicians.

'You could hear a murmur, and then it just exploded,' said Nancy Hamilton, the mother of two children at Irvington Elementary School and the east-side HOPE organizer. Hamilton estimates that close to 3,000 parents have e-mailed HOPE to help.

'I'm just astonished,' she said. 'I can't keep up with it.'

The parents' sudden activism jolted Portland politics. In the last three weeks, as HOPE leaders have been traipsing from City Hall to the county building to meet with city and county commissioners, those elected officials have been tripping over one another to propose new local taxes for education.

On Wednesday, the tax-skeptical Portland Business Alliance Ñ a powerful local business group that had worked for months on a proposal to decrease the local business income tax Ñ issued a proposal that would add an education surcharge to the alliance's original proposal to give local school districts $15 million a year for two years.

The alliance's John Rakowitz said that after city and county leaders proposed raising local taxes for education, the group's board wanted to forward its own proposal. It also calls for savings through a cap on health insurance for teachers and through reform of the state retirement system for teachers Ñ 'to clearly demonstrate how you can put something in place immediately É to not allow our public education system to fall into a financial hole.'

Expecting a change

'The sense now is that in the last couple of weeks, the question has gone from whether (there will be a local tax increase) to how much,' said Bobbie Regan, the parent of students at Forest Park Elementary and West Sylvan Middle schools and a HOPE leader.

'It's amazing to watch what has transformed in the three weeks,' said Lisa Amato Craig, the mother of a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old kindergartner at Laurelhurst Elementary School.

'It has been not only energizing, but it has been empowering,' said Amato Craig, who had not been active in education lobbying before the last few weeks. 'It has opened my eyes to the reality that we aren't powerless.'

No new local taxes have been approved yet, of course. And HOPE parents say they've heard plenty of complaints Ñ from parents and business people Ñ about new tax revenue for a Portland school district that some believe has misspent millions of dollars over the years.

'I think governments, including schools, have enough money, when you look at the entire pool,' said Wendy Lane of Lane Marketing Communications in Portland, who opposes any new local taxes on businesses. 'I think it's mismanaged.'

Elected leaders seem to acknowledge those complaints by saying they will demand strict accountability on how any new local tax money is spent.

Still, at least with elected leaders right now, the parents and education activists seem be winning the tax argument.

'I think they've been moved politically,' Amato Craig said of local politicians. 'A body of their constituents Ñ a few thousand of us Ñ have been contacting them, saying, 'Get your head screwed on. Just because the Legislature won't step up to the plate, that doesn't mean you as a representative can let our community fall apart.''

Maintaining livability

The HOPE parents' message is partly their fear: that after tens of millions of dollars in district budget cuts, after the possibility of a school year shortened by five weeks this year and possible student-teacher class ratios of 40-to-1 next year, middle-class families are ready to abandon Portland's school system.

Most Portland families send their kids to district schools, which is not true in many cities. Across the nation, the flight of the middle class from city school systems has affected not only schools, but also cities' property values, tax bases and business climates.

'City leaders also know this isn't just about schools. This is about Portland livability,' Regan said.

Regan said she and her husband moved their family to Portland several years ago from California.

'We didn't have to choose Portland,' she said. 'We chose Portland because of the schools. And if the schools aren't here, I'm not sure what holds you here.'

Some HOPE parents, a number of whom are middle class or upper-middle class and volunteer in their kids' schools, say they've worried about the school district for the last few years.

Those worries mushroomed when state voters recently rejected a temporary income tax increase that would have helped schools, and when Gov. Ted Kulongoski proposed a state budget for the next two years that promised little more help, they say.

'I've never felt before quite this level of real fear that our school district is truly at a tipping point,' said Lori Callister, the mother of a Cleveland High School freshman. 'It's as if the temperature gauge has gone into the warning zone.'

In their lobbying, HOPE parents have asked elected leaders for enough local money to promise a full school year with 30 students per classroom next year. And they've asked for support for a proposal by mid-March, when Portland school district officials will need to send teacher layoff notices if they don't have the promise of more money.

Leaders of a group organized by Mayor Vera Katz and Multnomah County Chairwoman Diane Linn have said they hope to merge various tax proposals into one local tax proposal by March 10. But even with qualified Portland Business Alliance support, there undoubtedly will be opposition.

HOPE parents said that won't deter them. Meanwhile, they continue lobbying politicians and attending school district budget hearings.

'It's not so people hear about our organization,' Regan said. 'It's so that when they walk out of budget meetings, they walk out with some kind of optimism that things are going to get better.'

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