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Advocates take education fight to Salem

by: patrick sherman, Wearing a red jacket, Clackamas High School senior Melissa Im holds up a sign during the rally on the steps of the state capitol. She led 15 of her fellow students down to Salem for the event, including Scott Berry, to her right.

Thousands of school supporters descended on Salem this past week, a contingent of area parents, students and teachers among them. The rally on the steps of the state capitol was organized by Stand for Children to demand more funding for schools.

'We want to get the basic funding level to $6.3 billion, which includes the governor's proposed budget of $6 billion plus a $300 million investment fund,' said Nathan Kadish, the group's Clackamas County organizer. 'It's an investment in programs: in North Clackamas, we're talking about more P.E., smaller class sizes, school counselors - the things that we've lost.

'That would get us up to 80 percent of the quality education model that the legislature itself said was required to fully educate children. We'd eventually like to see it fully funded.'

Both before and after the rally, individual constituents arranged meetings with their legislators to express their concerns.

'I have been wishing and hoping that we get some of our programs back,' Becky Williams of Milwaukie told Rep. Carolyn Tomei (D-Milwaukie). 'Things seem to be slowly disintegrating.

'More and more, the schools seem to be taking on the role of a parent in society - feeding and clothing kids. My husband is a teacher and a football coach at Milwaukie High School, and we've been arranging to feed the whole team before games on Friday nights.'

Kadish explained: 'This is the way Stand for Children works: these issues come up organically from the grass roots. My job is to help them work with the legislature to be more effective.'

Hooking up schools

The group has a slate of proposals that go beyond the state education budget for the next two years and touch on issues that lie at the intersection of development, politics and schools. High on the list is the creation of a new funding mechanism to pay for school construction.

'Everywhere there is growth going on, like in Clackamas County, people are very concerned about overcrowding. One possible solution would be to have SDCs help pay for schools,' said Kadish, using the acronym for Systems Development Charges - fees paid by homebuilders to fund the construction of basic services, like water and sewer, in new developments.

'An alternative to SDCs would be an impact fee for schools,' he said. 'It would enable school districts to collect fees from developers, if they can prove that the new construction has an impact on local schools.'

Separate bills that would create a system of SDCs and a system of impact fees are both working their way through the legislature, although Kadish said his group would prefer impact fees to address the issue.

'We appreciate that SDCs have to do with concrete expenses - if you build 50 houses, then you'll need 50 sewer hookups. That's a specific cost you can measure,' he said. 'If you build 500 homes, how many kids will come out of those homes over the lifetime of a school? That's a much harder question to answer.

'Impact fees are more equitable and more flexible. It's much easier to discount them for affordable housing projects or senior housing, which won't add students to local schools.'

Tomei responds

After meeting with her constituents, Rep. Tomei offered her own estimate of the group's legislative agenda, starting with its call for a $6.3 billion state school budget.

'I think it's doable,' she said. 'It's going to be hard, but I think it's doable. Because the economy is doing better, there is going to be a temptation to spend all that we have. We need to have a savings account - a rainy day fund to keep our schools going at the current level when the economy declines again.'

That was a sentiment shared by Rep. Mike Schaufler (D-Happy Valley).

'We're fortunate to have strong revenues this year, but we have to find a sustainable way to fund education in the future,' he said. 'I support putting the corporate kicker in a rainy day fund.'

In the House, Tomei put forward HB 2525, which would establish Systems Development Charges to pay for schools. In the Senate, SB 366 is also moving ahead. It would create the impact fees preferred by Stand for Children.

'I think the senate bill is an important bill, but I think it's important that my bill be out there, too, as an alternative,' she said. 'I'm not going to fall on my sword for my own bill.'

Tomei had praise for her constituents, who supported the North Clackamas School Bond in November 2006. Voters approved the $229.6 million measure by a 55-to-45 margin, making it the largest successful school bond in Oregon history.

'Some people were saying, 'Why should we vote for this - we already have all of our schools,'' she said. 'When I moved to Milwaukie, I brought my children with me. They went through Milwaukie schools that I never paid a penny for.'

According to Tomei, the citizens of Milwaukie looked passed their own self interest to support the broader community.

'I'm so proud of them for that - I hope they get some credit for it,' she said.

Students speak

The rally was scheduled to coincide with the President's Day holiday, which allowed students to attend without missing class - Melissa Im among them. The senior at Clackamas High School captained a bus that brought 15 of her fellow students to Salem, along with several of their parents.

'I did my senior seminar project on the North Clackamas School Bond,' said Im, who is contemplating a law degree and a career in politics. 'During the campaign, I learned it's not about benefiting from it, but the community is a much safer and more caring place when the schools are taken care of.

'When there is money, there are extra-curricular activities, the arts, and sports - things kids can do to stay out of trouble and develop themselves as citizens.'

Im cited the region's rapid growth as a key reason that more school funding is necessary.

'CHS was built in 2002 for 1,800 students,' she said. 'Now we've got 2,100 and we're going to be going up to 2,500 in a matter of months or maybe years - that's how fast development is occurring.'

Rachelle Garrison, a sophomore at CHS, had a very personal reason for wanting to see more state money flowing to schools

'I have younger siblings myself, and I want them to be able to learn more and go farther by having more one-on-one time with their teachers,' she said.

Also on-hand for the rally was Ellen Baltus, a counselor at Lot Whitcomb Elementary School.

'I've seen the deterioration,' she said. 'At the elementary level, there is supposed to be one counselor for every 250 students, but instead the ratio is one to 810. Even though we have high standards, we're not meeting them. My main concern is that people have settled for a low level of service in education.

'It's encouraging to see all these people here - at least it shows that people are paying attention.'