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About Northwest labor press. (Portland , Ore.) 1987-current | View Entire Issue (Feb. 17, 2006)
Think Again •
By Tim Nesbitt
When the handbasket arrives in hell
or Portland Public Schools, this is
the year that the handbasket will
finally arrive in hell.
All the stopgap funding measures
that kept Portland’s schools from go-
ing under have or will soon run out.
As a result, a district which cut al-
most 10 percent of its teaching posi-
tions last year now faces a budget
hell-hole large enough to consume 30
percent of the teachers who will still
be on its payroll next September.
And school parents will be invited
to help the district choose between
shortening an already short school
year or packing more kids into al-
ready overcrowded classrooms.
It was a long, bumpy ride, this de-
scent to the netherworld where Ore-
gon’s largest city can no longer main-
tain a fully functional school system
for its children. But it’s not as if we
didn’t see this coming.
We talked about our schools going
to hell in a hand basket when Mea-
sure 5 appeared on the ballot in 1990.
But Measure 5’s supporters offered a
Faustian bargain that a majority of
Oregon voters couldn’t refuse. We
can cut our property taxes, they ar-
gued, and let the state take care of fi-
nancing our schools.
There were real devils in the de-
tails of that bargain. Trusting the state
was one. Even in years when our
economy was booming, the Legisla-
ture never managed to replace the
funding that Portland and other high-
tax districts lost to Measure 5. To be
fair, state lawmakers had to address
other demands. But they also focused
more on equalizing school funding
statewide than on helping the districts
that were hurt most by Measure 5.
Even more devilish details
emerged when it came to paying for
the state’s increased school support.
Portland taxpayers saw more of their
state income taxes go to other school
districts, because of the emphasis on
And working families statewide
paid more for schools, while busi-
nesses paid less. Measure 5 cut local
property taxes, which were the largest
source of business tax support for
schools, and forced the state to re-
place those lost property taxes with
state income taxes, which are paid
largely by working families.
This shift of school funding from
businesses to working families was
the most diabolical effect of Measure
5. I have quantified this shift of re-
sponsibility for financing our schools
at different times over the past few
years. The numbers vary, depending
on what extra taxes have been ap-
proved by voters at the local level.
But the bottom line looks like this:
Prior to the passage of Measure 5 in
1990, businesses paid about 40 per-
cent to 45 percent of the operating
costs of our K-12 schools; now they
pay only 25 percent to 30 percent.
Part of that 10 percent to 20 per-
cent of school costs that are no longer
paid by Oregon businesses has been
taken out of school budgets. The rest
is now paid by Oregon’s working
families. Measure 5 not only short-
changed our schools, it overcharged
our working families to make up for
the windfall tax reductions it gave to
If voters in Portland, whose
schools have suffered more than most
from Measure 5, now tell pollsters
that they’re tired of paying more for
schools and never solving the school
funding problem, they’re not being
selfish. They’re being real. But their
reality has been largely ignored by
the political establishment. Portland’s
political leaders aren’t asking these
voters if they want to restore business
tax support for schools; they’re ask-
ing them if they want to pay more
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from their own pockets. And that has
become a losing proposition.
Maybe the prospect of an infernal
future for Portland’s schools will con-
vince our elected leaders to take an-
other look at businesses’ responsibil-
ity for financing our educational
system in Oregon.
One way to do that would be to
enact a property tax surcharge on
commercial and industrial property,
whose owners benefited most from
Measure 5. The last time that was
proposed, in 1992, Oregon’s business
community fought it, and the voters
rejected it. But that was before our
largest school district had to face the
consequences of Measure 5’s Faust-
To their credit, many business
leaders played a positive role in the
campaigns for the “local option”
property taxes and the temporary
county income tax that kept Portland
and other school districts from going
to hell in a hand basket until now.
But those solutions were not sus-
tainable because they never overcame
the underlying unfairness and insta-
bility of Measure 5’s school funding
scheme. Now that working families
are rebelling at the prospect of pay-
ing more temporary taxes to support
schools that appear to be in a perma-
nent state of crisis, we have to find a
way to make our school financing
system a little more fair and a lot
more stable. That means that business
leaders are going to have to do more
than lead the charge for school fund-
ing. Their businesses are going to
have to pay their fair share for sup-
porting our schools as well.
Tim Nesbitt is a former president of
the Oregon AFL-CIO.
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