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Business town hall morphs to education

The Hillsboro community can’t seem to get enough discussion of education these days, so even when there is a public forum on another issue, education often bubbles to the surface.

That was the case on the evening of April 3 with a “town hall on business” sponsored by the Hillsboro Chamber of Commerce and state Reps. Tobias Read (D-Beaverton) and Ben Unger (D-Hillsboro).by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: DOUG BURKHARDT - Metro President Tom Hughes, the former mayor of Hillsboro, spoke on behalf of transportation funding on April 3 during a packed town hall forum at the Hillsboro Public Library's Shute Park Branch.

The main topic on the agenda was billed as “how to build a thriving local economy here in Washington County,” yet education policy and budgeting for schools quickly took a central role in the discussion.

A crowd of about 45 people jammed into a small conference room at the Hillsboro Public Library’s Shute Park Branch to hear from the two legislators and from Deanna Palm, president of the chamber.

Early in the meeting, Unger pointed out that there are pending bills in the Oregon House that would allow companies to more swiftly navigate the state’s permitting process to start a new company or expand an existing one.

“We need to find ways to make government work better for companies to come to Oregon and grow,” Unger said.

State Sen. Bruce Starr (R-Hillsboro) was in the audience, and when Unger spotted him, he invited Starr to come up and take a (hot) seat up front next to Read and Unger.

Starr praised Washington County for providing strong support for business endeavors in the area.

“Our county has the best staff and leadership. They understand what it takes to attract companies to come to our community,” Starr explained. “Washington County drives a lot of what happens in our state, and that’s not by accident.

“Washington County is doing better than almost every other county in the state.”

However, one citizen at the meeting, Ann Riley, said she believed some of the incentives being offered to businesses hurt school funding.

“We give big money to companies at the cost of schools, and I’m really tired of that,” Riley said. “Companies come to a location partly because a place has a fantastic education system, and we don’t. We are incentivizing businesses to the point where education is cut to the bone.”

Unger said her concerns were legitimate.

“I, too think schools are an economic issue,” Unger explained. “The hardest thing to sell outside companies on is our schools. Better schools would make it easier to get businesses here.”

“The issues all interconnect,” agreed Starr. “I’ve heard Rep. Unger’s example about the software exec saying it’s difficult to recruit because of the quality of K-12 schools, and it’s surely true. We also need to invest in community colleges and universities. But without job creation, there’s no income tax revenue to fund K-12, community colleges or universities.”

Palm said many residents are concerned about inadequate funding for local public schools.

“I believe the Hillsboro community is quite concerned that additional cuts to the Hillsboro School District will greatly impact our students’ opportunities for success,” Palm explained. “This is not a new concern; we have been talking about this problem and the disinvestment in our education systems in Oregon for too long now.”

Michelle Powers, a teacher at Hillsboro’s Mooberry Elementary School, said Oregon schools are suffering from years of budgetary neglect.

“Let’s not have 38 to 40 kids in a classroom,” she said.

However, Powers said she did not see any problem with investing state resources to help businesses grow, adding that many companies are helping local schools.

“Props to Intel,” Powers said. “They are putting a lot of money, energy and community service into our schools.”

Another citizen complained to the legislators about funding for light rail, including the light rail planned as part of the proposed Interstate 5 Columbia River Crossing between Vancouver and Portland, because it “sucks money out of the system.”

“Rather than light rail, I’d rather have another lane on the freeway to use,” she said.

“I’m not here to debate light rail,” Starr responded. “But as for the new I-5 bridge to Vancouver, that is a huge freight, safety and business component that is critical to our state. And the light rail component is funded by federal gas tax money.”

Another attendee complained about the state providing funds to Union Pacific Railroad or other multi-modal transportation projects through ConnectOregon.

Read strongly defended ConnectOregon, an Oregon Lottery-funded program geared to spur multi-modal transportation improvements, with railroad, marine and aviation components.

Read said he was a strong supporter of infrastructure funding, because those investments benefit the Hillsboro area and the entire state.

“Any improvements to infrastructure that better connect goods and services with markets is key,” Read said. “Union Pacific is a large corporation with assets across the country, and we’d like them to invest in Oregon as opposed to somewhere else. That benefit accrues to the whole economy.”

Tom Hughes, a former mayor of Hillsboro and currently the president of Metro, was in attendance at the town hall event and he too strongly defended spending on transportation enhancements.

“Trade is vital to Oregon,” Hughes said. “We’re running out of rail capacity faster than highways. Whatever we encourage in rail is a direct benefit to the state. The best solution is to invest in jobs to provide new taxes, and any investment in rail creates jobs.”

After the event, Palm praised the legislators for meeting with citizens.

“The Chamber is grateful our local legislators take the time to do in-district community meetings during the session,” Palm said. “It’s never easy to be criticized or misunderstood, and I give them tons of credit for showing up and listening.”




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