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Tax appeal is all tapped out

Portland school supporters last week expressed great surprise at poll results indicating that voters don't favor another tax to rescue local schools. That anyone was surprised is astonishing.

When it comes to taxes, it's time to wake up.

A variety of polls conducted the past few years indicate that voters are tired of paying extra taxes. Many local residents feel financially tapped out. They have lost earning power due to inflation, and yet are having to plan for retirement while they contend with the rising costs of health care, housing and energy.

Troubling poll and election results are not just about taxes and personal finances. Taxpayer attitudes are a reflection of how frustrated some citizens are about spending and performance at all levels of government.

Budget shortfall no illusion

For the past few months, Portland Mayor Tom Potter and city school board members have considered a number of options to offset an anticipated $57 million shortfall in the 2006-07 budget for Portland schools. The shortfall, most of which results from the expiration of the Multnomah County income tax, is not imagined. It is real and follows numerous cuts already made by the school district. The $57 million amount is equal to the cost of 750 of the district's 2,473 teachers.

To keep layoffs of that magnitude from happening, several alternatives have been discussed: a regional tax for all metro-area schools; a new local-option levy for Portland schools; and Potter's idea of a four-year, $79 million city income tax.

The reality is that voters would resist any new tax.

School, city, community and business leaders gathered Thursday at an education summit organized by Potter to consider the dilemma. To be frank, there are few immediate solutions in hand Ñ just lots of work ahead.

We believe neither the city nor the school district should put a tax measure on the May ballot. To balance next year's budget, the district should continue to cut expenses. That should include one-time payroll and benefit concessions from classified employees, teachers and administrators.

Other steps should include a one-year amendment to board policy to reduce the district's general fund reserve beyond a current required limit. Doing so might free up as much as $4 million to $8 million. The district also should borrow one time from reserves now dedicated to offset future Public Employees Retirement System costs. That might provide another $4 million to $8 million. The Portland City Council should allocate up to $5 million to schools. But, in the final analysis, there likely will be no way to avoid job reductions.

District must rebuild trust

Such a process responds to voter attitudes and puts pressure on the Oregon Legislature to address the unique needs of the Portland Public Schools system, much the same way that Salem has helped fast-growing school districts or districts facing specific educational barriers, such as a high enrollment of students whose native language isn't English.

Where does that put Portland schools in the long term? In the same place other governments find themselves: needing to demonstrate that taxpayer dollars are well spent; that operational and personnel costs are decreasing; and that results are tangible and worthwhile. Such a shift in public attitude won't occur overnight. In the case of Portland schools, it likely won't happen in time for a local-option levy to pass for at least two years.

The imperative to build voter and taxpayer trust is immediate. It will take time. And it starts at home with Portland Public Schools.