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The marijuana windfall is not expected to be the 'gold mine' many were hoping to fix school revenue, but it's more immediate cash than voters approved.

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Marijuana sales brought in $85 million in taxes this year, but by the time it gets to Portland Public Schools, it will be a drop in the bucket.

This story has been updated from its original version.

Portland Public Schools will experience a windfall this year from marijuana taxes that will continue in perpetuity — and officials will have to decide how best to spend it.

While the state Department of Revenue announced that the money would be distributed Oct. 11, it is still unclear how much money PPS will receive. As the state's largest district, it is likely to receive the largest slice of the $34 million that will be distributed to schools according to a weighted formula. (The rest of the $85 million in cannabis taxes will go to local governments, law enforcement, mental health and substance abuse programs.)

Rita Moore, chair of the PPS school board's budget committee, says her best guess is that the district will get about $2.7 million, a relatively small sum given its half-billion-dollar general fund budget.

"It's not going to be a lot of money, as these things go," Moore says.

But it will be more than what voters originally approved — whether or not they understood what they were approving.

The 2017 Oregon Legislature changed the way marijuana tax revenues will be distributed to schools. Under voter-approved Measure 91, which legalized recreational marijuana in Oregon, the taxes designated for schools were going to be invested in the Common School Fund, a trust fund that pays out small dividends each year from its investments.

Instead, through House Bill 3470, legislators scrambling to balance a budget with less revenue moved that money to the State School Fund, which is spent immediately.

Anthony Johnson, who led the Measure 91 campaign, says he is fine with the shift to spending the money now and doesn't think voters will object either.

"With millions of dollars in new revenue flowing directly to school districts to help cover costs such as teachers and textbooks, the will of the voters is being met and the cannabis tax dollars are being used wisely," Johnson said in an email.

He also says he doubts the new revenue will ever go back to being a long-term investment.

"It seems that the State School Fund is a more efficient way to get millions of dollars in new revenue to Oregon schools, so it is unlikely that the revenue will return to the Common School Fund," he said.

The state's long legislative sessions in odd-numbered years conclude after PPS' budgeting process, so the district's budget necessarily involves a bit of guesswork on how much money it will get from the state.

PPS spokesman Dave Northfield said the 2017-18 budget did not include marijuana revenues, but a government insider tells the Portland Tribune that state estimates on their payments to districts did include that money. Northfield declined to comment on how those monies might be spent.

In 2015, PPS had an unbudgeted windfall of about $10 million and the board chose to spend $7.5 million on technology upgrades, books, school safety improvements and educational programming.

Moore said she thinks this extra money will just go into the general fund for next year. She is cautious about being too hopeful that the new marijuana revenues will make much of a difference.

"It's not trivial, but it's certainly not the gold mine people thought it would be," she said.

UPDATE (Oct. 20, 2017): This story has been changed to reflect that state payment estimates did include marijuana money and therefore the payments were not exactly unbudgeted at the district level.


Shasta Kearns Moore
Reporter
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