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State reps contemplate education funding at town hall meeting


Chris Garrett on education funding: Measures limit how much we can tax ourselves

State Reps. Chris Garrett, D-Lake Oswego, and Julie Parrish, R-West Linn, came together last week at Lake Oswego Junior High School for a town hall to discuss how the state of Oregon funds its education system during a time when all districts have been struggling to stay sufficiently subsidized.

“We’re starting to hurt; the rest of the state is in real trouble. So now we’re going to fix it,” said Courtney Clements, LOJHS SAC member, inviting the representatives to brainstorm.

Both Parrish and Garrett said they had a personal, vested interest in education funding.

“As a mom of three kids in public schools and the only person in my family to graduate in a meaningful way from high school and the only one to go to college,” Parrish said, “I care deeply and passionately about how education lifts you up out of poverty and lifts you up into a different place in your life.”

Garrett said he had been through Oregon’s public education system during the height of its academic offerings, instilling a commitment in him to bring it back to its past levels.

“I came out of our neighboring district at Wilson High School in 1992. I think I graduated right at the peak, and my sister who graduated three years after I did saw the impact,” he said. “This has been very personal to me since I first got involved in politics and ran for office. Education funding, K-12 funding has been going down as a percentage of state spending for several years now.”

With the passage of Ballot Measure 5 in 1990 and Ballot Measures 47 and 50 in 1997, state revenue, state revenue from income taxes replaced local revenue from property taxes as the primary source of school funding in Oregon. But due to budget cuts and demands on state funds in other areas, funding for education has shrunk.

With an increasing amount of state funding diverted toward corrections and social services, “If we make no changes to current policy, we’ll be spending another $600 million to build an estimated 2,000 new prison beds,” Garrett said. “To avoid those costs, we have no choice but to make some changes to our criminal justice policies.”

“Yes, we have folks in prison; we also have some of the highest labor costs for housing prisoners, and something needs to be done to address the cost ... compared to some of our neighboring states,” Parrish agreed. “Conversations about where and how we’re spending these dollars need to happen in a realistic way.”

What’s more, Garrett said, property tax revenue allocated toward education — 30 percent — is less and less helpful due to tax compression.

The Lake Oswego School District has local option levy authority, allowing it to ask voters for property tax levies above limits established by Measure 50 based on assessed property value, so long as it does not put taxpayers above the Measure 5 real market value limit of $5 per thousand for schools.

However, “With declining property values, the gap between the real, fair market value of people’s homes and the assessed value has shrunk, and that means for the first time in the history of this district ... we’re actually seeing a loss of revenue that the voters here actually voted to tax themselves in order to fund our schools,” he said. “Because we’re constitutionally limited in how much revenue we can tax ourselves for schools for Measure 5 ... our ability to take advantage of local option has dissipated. That is costing the Lake Oswego School District $1.7 million a year.”

But, Garrett said, “The housing market will take care of itself; compression problems should disappear, and I’m sponsoring legislation to deal with that.”

These include co-sponsoring legislation to reform the personal income tax kicker and sponsoring a statutory measure that would remove the limits per person “and as a percentage of revenue on a local option itself,” he said, “so that once we come out of compression, Lake Oswego ... will have the ability to fully tax themselves to the extent they’re willing to do so.”

He added: “In terms of funding, we’ve had a long conversation in the state about equalization: every district should have an equal allocation. It gets harder and harder as a representative from a district that is so committed to its schools to live with that the state owes every district a baseline opportunity. If a city wants to tax itself more to give more to its kids, they have the right do that.”

And, he said, “We need statutory, if necessary, constitutional change to allow you the right to take full advantage of tax you’re allowed to impose yourselves.”