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Passing urban renewal districts hurts schools

At a time when Oregon schools are in desperate need of funding, it’s estimated that the state school fund will lose approximately $74 million to urban renewal districts statewide. The impact to Lake Oswego School District is estimated to be $815,000 this year — enough to fund the overhead of one elementary school. These are startling figures, and I’m concerned that the use of this development funding tool is shortchanging the education of our children.

As past chair of the LOSD School Board, I know how critical every dollar is to provide our kids the finest education possible. The current impact of urban renewal equates to $120/student (figure provided by LOSD). That may not sound like a lot, but multiplied by our student population, it adds up to $815,000 for this school year.

In the face of a lingering economic downturn, where the school board has faced tough choices, including closing three elementary schools, that’s money our district could desperately use. The detrimental impact of urban renewal on our schools is likely to escalate because it is a popular development tool in Portland and its use is increasing in Lake Oswego and elsewhere throughout the state.

During the current election, the issue of the use of urban renewal to fund city projects has been debated. The downtown Millennium Plaza Park area is an urban renewal district that we all enjoy and are proud to call our city center. At the time it was established, urban renewal was a prudent way to ensure development success in this area, but the economic climate has severely changed. Just this fall, two more urban renewal districts are being created in Lake Oswego and several others have been formed elsewhere in the state. While there are claims that the new districts in Lake Oswego have very little impact to our schools, when all of these urban renewal districts are added together, the impact on the state school fund is tens of millions of dollars. A little here, a little there and it all adds up to a major financial impact — $74 million this year alone.

 These are monies that are being siphoned away from schools and our children to help subsidize development. Proponents of urban renewal claim that such projects will result in higher tax revenues long term, but the collateral being used to place this bet is the education of our children in the system today. If you want proof of the lack of sustainability of such schemes look no further than California, which recently shut down all of its urban renewal districts due to the devastating impact they have on core services:  schools, police and fire. As a result, $1 billion was returned to California schools this year by ending the use of urban renewal.

While some members of our school board have said they support the increased use of urban renewal, particularly to develop Foothills, I disagree with sacrificing the education funding of our current students when there are other ways to fund development projects.

As you consider the candidates for mayor and city council, make sure you understand the positions of all the candidates and who LOCAL endorses. Don’t sell out our kids’ education today for a bet that may or may not help our kids or grandkids 15 to 20 years from now.

Rich Akerman, Lake Oswego, is a former school board chair and a director with LOCAL.