Backers step up efforts to urge voters to pass

Kari McGee decided the best way to get involved in her children's education was early - a few years early.

So the North Portland mother of a 3-year-old, with another baby on the way, is volunteering her time to ensure that Portland Public Schools maintains its class sizes, teachers and curriculum until her kids become old enough to attend their neighborhood school.

'I thought I'd better put my time where my mouth is,' said McGee, 41, who moved to Portland from Los Angeles two years ago for the public school system here. 'I've got three years to get it all settled.'

The full-time real estate agent is among hundreds of parents citywide who are mobilizing this week to campaign for the local-option levy for the schools, one of four major local measures on the Nov. 7 ballot. The others are for the Multnomah County Library system, Metro open space and the city's Fire and Police Disability and Retirement fund.

The school district's levy - which will provide $33 million each year for five years, beginning in 2007 - will replace several sources of funding that have dried up, including the Multnomah County income tax, federal desegregation money and the money that the city and county governments chipped in this past year as a stopgap.

As with previous school funding campaigns, the parents are making lawn signs, sending postcards to voters, calling voters and knocking on doors.

But McGee is trying to reach out to those parts of the city that have historically had the lowest voter turnout rate - her neighbors in the Piedmont and Humboldt areas.

'We have a unique voice that's not being included in the debate over funding, school closures,' she said, noting that the neighborhood is still adjusting to Applegate Elementary being closed a few years ago. 'There's a uniqueness and diversity. Those votes really do count.'

McGee's specific goal is to deliver 1,400 people from her area who will vote for the school levy. Part of that will come from an effort this weekend, when she and other neighborhood parents plan to knock on 800 doors, make contact with at least 320 voters and deliver at least 250 yes votes.

Parents and supporters are actively campaigning across the city as well.

From the Portlanders for Schools campaign headquarters at 1024 N.E. Davis St., at least 20 parents sit on the phones five times a week, three hours at a time, to call registered voters to ask for their support, dispel myths and answer questions about the levy. Soon, there will be 45 phone lines to accommodate more volunteers.

Campaign manager Rhys Scholes said the measure is easy to explain. None of the funds may be spent on administration. All must go to maintaining class sizes, curriculum and teachers at each school. A citizen committee will oversee the spending.

The levy cost is $1.25 per $1,000 of assessed value, which would cost the median homeowner $12.88 per month.

Campaign consultant Liz Kaufman, a veteran on school funding measures, said the fundraising goal for the campaign is $460,000, just more than half of which has been raised so far.

The Portland Schools Foundation has donated $115,000 and is the largest single donor, as it usually is for local school campaigns, Kaufman said. The local business community also pitched in about $115,000, evidence of the Portland Business Alliance's support of the levy this year.

Other money so far came from the school district employee groups, nearly 100 grass-roots donors, the PTAs and individual school foundations.

The schools foundation also is spearheading its own efforts, rallying PTA leaders, past donors and community members who've participated in the foundation's Principal for a Day program.

Those efforts potentially could raise another $25,000 to $50,000 for the campaign, said Executive Director Cynthia Guyer.

'It's one way of working our constituency,' Guyer said. 'It's important to do more than direct mail.'

There isn't any major organized opposition to the school levy at this point. The Taxpayer Association of Oregon, which historically has opposed such measures, is spending most of its time and money on pushing a state spending limit initiative, according to Executive Director Jason Williams.

Although Williams opposes the measure, he missed by a day submitting a statement for the voter pamphlet against it. Williams said he's encouraged by some of the changes the district has made, such as consolidating school buildings, but he still sees some financial problems that need to be addressed.

'We really want to try to remind voters that you need to make sure they reform the system,' he said, 'that it's not a permanent state of asking voters for more money.'

An issue that some feared might cause future financial problems for the district now appears to have blown over. It concerned a recent opinion by the Oregon Supreme Court ruling on a case involving the Eugene School District.

The Aug. 31 ruling stated that schools were violating Measure 5 tax caps by accepting some funds from cities and counties. The ruling said the additional funds had caused the district to exceed the measure's $5 per $1,000 of taxable property limitation for schools - even though the funds came from other government agencies.

According to the Multnomah County Tax Supervising and Conservation Commission, which monitors such issues, none of the Portland Public School partnerships with the city and county are in jeopardy of being severed. Portland Parks and Recreation and the Portland Police provide service to the entire city in addition to the schools, and the county funds a portion of the Schools Uniting Neighborhoods program through its general fund, not a property tax levy.

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