End run on Measure 5 leaves schools strapped

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By Kay Helbling

Dumbfounded by the school districts’ recent cry of budget constraints in light of yearly increased state education budgets, I had to take a closer look at what was happening at the State and in local schools. What I found was an interesting phenomenon that has taken place in Oregon over the last twenty years.

Back in 1990, the voters of Oregon passed Measure 5. According to Wikipedia, it is still considered “one of the most contentious measures in Oregon election history.” Not only did the bill cap property tax rates, but it also transferred the revenue stream from local districts to the state along with the funding responsibilities for all of Oregon’s public schools.

Since revenue and funding responsibilities lie with the state, obviously the answer to the problem must be at the state level. So, I contacted Jake Weigler, Communications Director for the Oregon Dept. of Ed.  He helped me maneuver through the maze of reports…to a certain degree…on the DOE Website.

This year, as in all past years, the Oregon Legislature did not cut school funds. In fact, they added double digit increases to the budget. The ’09-’11 budget was increased by $200 million (12.7%). Wouldn’t we all love to have an additional 12.7% income stream in our budgets? Not only are the schools receiving double digit increases in funding from the State, but this year the millions that flow from the federal government are supplemented with over $1 billion of additional stimulus (http://www.earnmydegree.com/online-education/learning-center/stimulus/oregon.html.) So, how and why can schools across Oregon find themselves in budget problems year after year?

I followed the funds back to some local school districts, including the North Clackamas District since their threatened cut of 60 teachers has made front page news recently (Oregonlive, 8/21/09, North Clackamas to Cut Teachers). Looking at their expenditures, I didn’t find a lot of discrepancy from year to year. State and federal funds seemed to be predictable and sustainable, but then I happened upon a very revealing Q&A response that opened my eyes to what may be the source of the problem. In response to a simple question of why there aren’t enough funds, the response pointed to additional funding sources that have emerged as an end-run to Measure 5’s state-directed school funding. It appears that over the years school districts and state legislation have consistently created new, more localized, revenue streams such as the Common School Funds, School Improvement Funds or Local Option Levies.

State funding under Measure 5 was to take the vulnerability away from economically unpredictable revenue sources. And it has. But, over the years in school districts across the state, they have added to their financial coffers by putting local tax options before their voters. Their voters being very supportive of their schools have said yes, again and again. The schools increased their budgets during good times, but now that local economies have turned they find their increased budgets have dug them into a hole. Unlike at the state level, where teachers unions lobby for increased funds and get it, there is no one to lobby poor local economies into riches. By doing an end run around Measure 5 they have created local revenue revenue streams that appears to have exposed them to the same vulnerabilities they had prior to 2009.

 Creating property tax limits and transferring local funding control from the local level to the state was seen an assault on all public programs, including schools. Who would have ever suspected that this bill, almost 20 years after its passage, may be the very thing that could have saved many of the schools…from themselves?

Kay was an insurance adjuster and executive for 15 years, a small business owner, and a teacher for ten.  But, her most fulfilling work has been as a mother of her two boys. She is now enjoying an empty nest with her best friend—her husband.