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Money for schools cannot be delayed

Our Opinion

The dual request that the Portland school district is sending to voters in the May 17 election is undeniably large.

The district is seeking approval of a renewed local-option operating levy to the tune of $57 million per year, as well as a $548 million bond measure to begin the process of rebuilding the district's aging schools.

Many people have argued that the two measures go too far - that voters should reject the school construction proposal, in particular, and thereby defer once again any meaningful action to replace and remodel schools that are decades old. But we believe a thorough evaluation by Portland voters, who historically have been supportive of schools, should lead them to approve this investment in education.

We understand - and share - the concerns about placing an additional burden on taxpayers at this time. Before voters make a final judgment, however, they should consider what will and won't happen within Portland Public Schools if either of these measures is rejected in May.

Waiting won't make a difference

Without approval of the bond measure, which appears on the ballot as Measure 26-121, school buildings and classrooms within the district will continue to deteriorate. Students will be without modern science labs and computer centers. The school district will continue to be at a disadvantage when competing with suburban schools to attract families with children.

The students already enrolled within the district will continue to attend outdated schools whose cost of maintenance and upkeep will either go unfunded or will compete with classroom teaching needs for the district's general fund dollars. The cost to do anything about these problems will rise into the future.

The case in favor of the operating levy, Measure 26-122, is even more immediate than the bond proposal. The operating levy would support the equivalent of 500 teachers at a time when the district is bracing for losses in funding from both the state and federal governments.

It is certainly not without reservation or qualification that we recommend a yes vote on both measures. But rejecting either of the measures will not advance educational outcomes in Portland. And in the case of the bond measure, a no vote would be a vote to defer a school-construction program that must be tackled at some point.

Bond critics say the proposed construction program hasn't been sufficiently thought out, and that the request for such a large sum of money is poorly timed. But we believe the district has done a good job of identifying the best places to start renovating schools - which in Portland have an average age of 65 years.

The district's cost estimates for construction are based roughly on what Seattle has spent on its school renovations, so we are comfortable with the projections. But even if those costs turn out to be less than estimated, any extra money collected can go right into the long list of school-building improvements that would have been addressed by the next bond measure. The remodeling and construction program, after all, is expected to be a multi-decade effort.

The sooner we get started, the better.

Some will need tax relief

While we see no choice but to approve these two measures, we are concerned about the impact on property taxpayers, especially those on fixed incomes. In Portland, there will be individuals and families whose ability to remain in their homes will be threatened by the combined property tax increase of about $2.74 per $1,000 of assessed property value. For the owner of a $275,000 home with an assessed value of $145,000 - the median in the Portland district - the annual tax increase would be nearly $400, or about $33 per month.

For some people, that's an irritant or inconvenience. For others, it's the difference between keeping a home or not.

This burden on property owners isn't a problem created by the schools - it's the result of a tax system that relies only on property taxes to fund a variety of local services. But school supporters should not minimize the effect that additional taxes will have on low-income households.

Two advocates for these measures - Mayor Sam Adams and Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen - should pledge, as part of this campaign, to explore creating a safety net to identify and assist people whose ability to stay in their homes is jeopardized by ever-rising property tax bills.

For those voters who are not in that predicament, however, the choice is whether to support schools now, or to continue to delay the inevitable.

Portland's school children won't be helped by waiting.