Until Salem acts, the solutions are up to us
Portland and our public schools are at a crossroads. Ten years ago, then-Mayor Vera Katz called for an education summit to tackle the crisis that our schools faced Ñ a funding crisis caused by Measure 5 and an equalization formula to bring to the same level the per-pupil spending for every child attending K-12 public schools in Oregon.
Until Measure 5, most school districts were funded in large part by local property taxes, proposed by the local school boards and voted upon by citizens within the districts.
In 1996, the city and county came to the rescue with a one-time infusion of money. The Portland Schools Foundation organized the March for Our Schools that mobilized 30,000 students, teachers, parents, businesses and school supporters to make a statement that we, as a community, valued education and believed good schools to be the bedrock upon which our community was built. It was the largest turnout of its kind in the history of Oregon.
The city and the county tapped into their reserves, and the citizens of our community rallied to raise $10.6 million to save 200-plus teaching jobs. Our schools escaped without major damage, and we demonstrated that we valued educating our children as much as we valued all other essential services.
In May 2000, voters passed a five-year local option tax to purchase new textbooks and reinstate music and library programs. In its last year it generated $32 million for our schools. A statewide coalition of school advocates, Coalition for School Funding Now, was formed to make sure our legislators provided adequate funding for all Oregon students.
However, with Oregon's economy leading the nation in unemployment, the Legislature fell behind in its ability to fund schools. In 2003, in the midst of the worst economic downturn in our state since the early '80s, Multnomah County passed an income tax surcharge of 1.25 percent and raised $125 million annually for three years. This will expire in June, and our schools will face a $57 million shortfall annually unless something is done to raise local revenue.
Mayor Tom Potter has proposed a replacement tax for city schools that will help fill that gap for the next four years. I can empathize with the taxpayers who are tired and don't favor paying more taxes. There's no question that the long-term solution rests with the state. On the bright side, our state economy is improving, and the Legislature will have more money to allocate to our schools.
But the problem remains: What to do today? We the community must come together and do what is right Ñ not just for our children, but for ourselves as a community.
This is not the time to point fingers and tell someone else to fix it for us. It is our responsibility to build another bridge to get us to the other side. Some would call these Band-Aid solutions, but solutions they are nonetheless.
There are no magic answers or silver bullets. We are the only ones who care and can provide the answers.
I believe that the tipping point is here and now. If we do not invest in our community today, tomorrow will look much different than we want it to be. It is our community, the children are our children, the future is ours. Let's remember, it's 'we' who will come up with solutions to maintain this wonderful place we call home and to sustain it for our children.
Sho Dozono is president of Azumano Travel and a founding member of the Portland Schools Foundation. Last week, Mayor Tom Potter appointed him co-chairman of a new group, the Children's Education Coalition, which is looking for short- and long-term financial solutions for the district's schools.