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Schools could help their cause

The Herculean effort to fill Portland's school-budget hole would be made easier if city and educational leaders worked to close another gap: the distance between the school district and everyday taxpayers.

Recent discussions about Portland Public Schools' budget problems have centered on the idea of tapping taxpayers to overcome the entirety of a $57 million budget shortfall for the 2006-07 fiscal year. While we don't believe Portland schools can be kept whole without a cash infusion, we also don't think the conversation should be one-sided.

After three years of paying what was supposed to be a short-term local income tax to support education, Portlanders are weary of forking over additional dollars for schools. That's why recent polling shows tepid support, at best, for Mayor Tom Potter's belated plan to place a four-year citywide income tax on the ballot in May to replace the retiring I-tax.

While Potter's proposal is being discussed, it would be helpful for school administrators and employees to say what they are willing to bring to the table to increase chances of passing yet-another 'temporary' tax.

The opportunity now to make a positive statement to Portland taxpayers is large, but it requires even more sacrifice than in the past on the part of employee unions and administrators.

What if the district were to agree to budget reductions that make up a portion of the deficit and then go to voters with a smaller tax?

No one wants additional cuts that would increase class sizes or shorten what is already a barely adequate school year. That means concessions from school districts would have to include reductions in the admittedly small budget areas of central administration, school building administrative and support staff; extracurricular programs; and other items that steer clear of the classroom.

At the same time, the Portland district is starting negotiations with its unions. These talks must focus on the realities confronting a district that is experiencing declining enrollment and loss of revenues.

Voters are tired of either-or choices: In this instance, pay $57 million or face unacceptable school cuts. Wouldn't it be preferable to meet citizens part way with a package of judicious nonclassroom cuts and a palatable tax plan? Not only would it appear fair Ñ but so much more likely to succeed.