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Reject ill-timed school bond

Two Views • Portland district's ballot measures stir concerns about priorities, funding in tight times
by: Christopher Onstott Eric Fruits, a parent organizer of the "Learn Now, Build Later" campaign, rallies to oppose the Portland Public School’s facilities bond measure to upgrade and rebuild schools, saying the economic timing is bad.

These are some tough times for the U.S. economy and Portland is not immune to the pain. We lost a lot of jobs in this recession, and it is hard to believe this is a recovery with unemployment still higher than 9 percent in the city. Portland home prices fell more than 10 percent last year, leaving nearly a third of Portland homeowners owing more on their mortgage than their house is worth, and inflation has reared its ugly head, driven by increases in food, fuel and rent.

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Now Portland Public Schools wants voters to approve two tax measures on May 17 which,combined, will increase property taxes on the average house in Portland by $500 a year.

As a parent, educator and economist, I will vote YES on the operating levy 26-122 to protect essential classroom learning, but NO on this poorly designed facilities bond 26-121. PPS needs to rework the facilities bond to a smarter, safer, and more cost-efficient bond that benefits more students.

If you've seen any of the TV ads put out by PPS, you may not understand that the facilities bond and operating levy are separate measures. However, Measures 26-121 and 26-122 are two very different animals. Measure 26-122 is an essential levy to replace classroom operating funds lost in the downturn. A vote for the levy will keep teachers in the classroom,help to limit class sizes and protect valuable educational programs.

It makes sense for Portland even in these tough economic times because it preserves critical school programs and protects our investment in the next generation of Portlanders. The levy will cost the average homeowner about $130 per year.

At $548 million, Measure 26-121 is the largest construction bond in the history of Portland. This expensive bond asks too much at a time when so many of our neighbors are suffering the combined effects of weak labor and housing markets and rising inflation. Unlike an income tax that goes down if your income goes down, a property tax must be paid in full regardless of your circumstances.

Conditions in the housing market make it very hard for people to sell their homes, and impossible for those who owe more than the home is worth to avoid property tax increases they cannot afford. Raising property taxes so much makes people who are already under financial pressure desperate.

The construction bond asks for too much money, to benefit too few students. The bond devotes one third of $548 million to rebuild just three of the district's 85 schools: Jefferson, Roosevelt and Cleveland, which together enroll only 6 percent of the district's students.

PPS misrepresents this as a seismic bond but this bond works on only 2 of the 15 schools rated 'highly likely' to collapse in an earthquake. This bond does not target the schools with the most students or the schools that are in the worst condition. Let's focus on using scarce resources to provide safe and updated learning environments to the most students.

Importantly, PPS cannot afford to operate all 85 schools and provide a decent education in those buildings, as we face huge budget shortfalls, even with the levy. Surrounding districts are consolidating smaller schools to conserve costs while offering a solid education to the most students.

Meanwhile, PPS has illogically prioritized rebuilds of small schools, over worse facilities that serve more students. Five of the nine schools slated for rebuilds are small schools serving less than 500 students - the schools that other districts are consolidating. Why rebuild or repair buildings that may eventually be closed?

Straining scarce operational funds across 85 schools and sinking money into small schools drains limited funding and will result in increased class sizes, decreased educational programs and potentially worsen our appalling 53 percent graduation rate.

I urge my neighbors to vote 'yes' on Measure 26-122 because the levy will keep teachers in the classrooms and help our children learn. I urge my neighbors to vote 'no' on the Measure 26-121. Send the construction bond back to the drawing board, make tough decisions about cost-saving consolidations and wait until Portland is back on its feet.

Sarah Tinkler, Portland State University economics professor, is a Portland Public Schools parent.