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Eugene Weekly : News : 12.23.10

Kids and Jobs

Citizens pack meeting to ask city to help schools

By Alan Pittman

More than 200 people packed into Eugene City Hall Dec. 14 as part of a grassroots effort that might put a progressive city income or other tax on the ballot to rescue local schools facing devastating budget cuts.

Eugene School District 4J is struggling with an estimated $22 million budget cut next year that will likely close several schools, pack even more kids into what are already some of the most crowded classrooms in the nation, lay off scores of teachers and possibly reduce schools to only four days a week. The cuts come on top of $36 million in cuts 4J has already struggled to make in the last two years. 

In Eugene’s smaller Bethel School District, “it’s really a very similar story,” Bethel Superintendent Colt Gill told the crowd at the school funding forum. Gill said Bethel has cut $13.6 million in the last three years. Last year teachers volunteered to work one day without pay, and this year Bethel will cut eight days from its school calendar, according to Gill. 

Already, “Oregon has got the second shortest school year of any state in the nation,” Gill said. 

The historic, standing room only crowd in the council chambers included the mayor and six current and just elected Eugene city councilors, two county commissioners, at least six 4J and Bethel school board members and the superintendents of the Eugene, Bethel and Springfield school districts. 

People at the open meeting spoke overwhelmingly and sometimes emotionally in favor of the city helping local schools for the sake of kids and the local economy. But a small vocal minority spoke against public education, public employees, government and/or taxes in general.

Brian Weaver said government workers are overcompensated and condemned the state’s Public Employee Retirement System (PERS). “So I’m against any kind of tax.”

UO President Richard Lariviere had planned to attend but expressed that he was “very disappointed” he could not make it through his community relations director Greg Rikhoff.

Rikhoff read a statement from Lariviere: “Healthy schools create healthy communities. We want great schools, we need great schools. I applaud Mayor Piercy’s leadership and willingness to take on the complex and pressing school funding shortfalls.” 

Lariviere said the UO, the city’s largest employer and economic engine, relies on the quality of local schools. “It is essential in attracting and retaining top faculty and staff,” he said. “Our educators rightfully insist on quality education for their families.” He added, “Further cuts to our K-12 schools put at risk the necessary preparation required to attend a world class research university.” Lariviere said, “together let’s craft solutions that will lead our community and our state to prosperity.”

Sabrina Parsons, the CEO of Palo Alto Software, which designs business plan software and has more than 40 local employees, said with the bleak funding picture for local schools, she and her husband have talked about relocating the business. “We started talking about can we keep our business here. Is this a place we can keep our business if we cannot educate our children?”

Parsons said her firm is growing and has plans to hire six to 10 more employees soon. But she said, “I can’t recruit people into the community if there is not good public education.”

“It’s very important,” Parsons said. “It’s an issue not only for people with kids in our school system, but for the health of our community, for the quality of life,” Parsons said. “I want to support finding ways to support the school system and finding ways to put money in.”

State property tax measures have restricted school districts’ ability to raise money for themselves locally, but Eugene City Attorney Glenn Klein said the city can legally increase school funding through a non-property tax. 

“The council could adopt an income tax,” he said. “The way the state legislative formula works for education, if the [city] council provides let’s a say a million dollars to each school district, that’s an additional million dollars that the school districts would have to spend,” Klein said. “It would be additional revenue.”

If the council wants to refer a tax measures to the voters for the May ballot, it would have to vote for the referral by mid-February, Klein said. “The council will have to act quickly.”

Local municipal law attorney and school parent Christy Monson said she got involved in the campaign after she heard people at budget cut meetings incorrectly say, “Oh we can’t do anything; we have to wait for the state to fund it.” Monson said, “We don’t have to wait for the state.”

Monson urged the city to consider the income, sales and other local tax options for schools that are allowed under Oregon laws for government home rule. “The power is in your hands and the electorate’s hands,” she said. “You have no limit on what you can do except for your political realities and to make sure it’s a public purpose.”

“You can sunset, create a deadline for the tax to end and revisit it. Is this something that is working for our community?” Monson said. 

“It’s up to the elected officials in this room; it’s up to the people,” Monson said. “There is no other form of government that is closer to having your own hand on the throttle than local government.”

UO history professor Ian McNeely said, “I do believe I represent a great number of professional educators in our community when I say I am simply dumbfounded that in the year 2010 we are proposing to cut school days instead of adding them, to increase class sizes instead of reducing them, to fire recently hired teachers instead of welcoming them into the profession.”

McNeely said the budget cuts are hurting kids’ futures. “Every day I encounter students who show great enthusiasm and native intelligence but who have been underserved by our public schools,” he said. “They are increasingly unprepared for college.”

“If our schools sink any further, then I and what many thousands of other serious professionals in our city do for a living will simply lose its value,” McNeely said. “Many of us will move elsewhere, and our community will almost certainly be unable to recruit new talent.”

McNeely said taxpayers will get an “unexpected windfall” from new federal tax cuts, and he supported new city taxes for schools. With support from the city and UO experts, Eugene schools could become “a model for the rest of Oregon,” he said. 

Mark Callahan said he had two elementary children but condemned the “bleeding heart dog and pony show in terms of funding our schools.” He condemned the “entitlement mindset” of schools and used the platform to also attack the EmX public transportation system and the recently passed state Measure 66 tax on the wealthy. 

Measure 66 increased income taxes on couples earning more than $250,000 and passed by a 3-1 vote in Eugene.

EWEB board member Bob Cassidy said, “I do not have children in school, but I would support any tax that would be created to fund schools. The need is so great, it’s really necessary. Eugene has a long, long history of supporting education, and they would do so now.”

Cassidy said a statewide school funding issue is difficult because the property tax reduction measures reduced funding in Eugene while increasing it in rural Oregon through equalization. In rural areas, “they are very happy with their schools, they got more money than they ever did before, but they don’t like additional taxes.”

UO retired professor Dan Herbert said critics have argued schools shouldn’t get more money until they are “perfectly efficient.” But he said such perfection isn’t achieved in business or any other human endeavor. “This argument for perfection just avoids the issue, puts it off forever,” he said. 

Herbert, who recently helped research economic development for the Eugene City Club, called on the city to fund local schools with “a surtax on state income taxes. That would be a good solution, it would be clear, easy to administer and it could piggyback on an existing collection system.”

Diane Thurlow called for cuts in teacher compensation. “Read my lips, no new taxes,” she said. She argued that schools don’t need more funding. “It’s a fallacy that more money means higher quality of education.”

Tammy Young said she and her husband were recruited to work here two years ago by the promise of good schools. “We all know that in order to recruit and be supportive of very good teachers, we need to pay good teachers and value them,” she said. 

She said good schools are a key to businesses’ ability to attract the best workers. “The businesses being able to recruit is so valuable,” she said. In her case, “I’m not sure if the situation was the same now, that we would have chosen Eugene,” Young said. She called on the City Council and mayor to “please do what we can to support schools because that is our future.”

Claire Dannenbaum said she opposed an income tax on “modest” incomes and instead supported a restaurant tax to support schools. 

A comparatively modest Eugene restaurant tax to prevent city budget cuts failed by a 20 percent margin in 1993, after the state’s powerful restaurant lobby campaigned against it. Oregon voters have defeated general sales taxes nine times. Most recently, a state sales tax for schools was voted down 3-1 statewide and 2-1 in Lane County. Research has found that even carefully constructed sales taxes have a higher burden on the poor than the rich. 

Nico Larco, a UO professor and father of three, said school funding “is an economic issue for how our community works, an economic development issue.”

“The schools are key to quality of life. If that’s something we don’t have, it’s almost a non-starter” for economic development, Larco said. 

“If we can’t have a good school system going on here, we will lose people coming to the community, we will lose people moving out,” he said. “We’re kind of at rock bottom” with school higher class sizes and less school days, he said, “$22 million is a serious amount of money.” 

Lisette Ewing said she has taught with deepening budget cuts for 20 years in Oregon. “This is a discussion that we should have had a long time ago.” After state measures reduced school funding, “I like the idea of having it come back to us locally and having this control here.”

Lane County Commissioner Pete Sorenson said, “Public education is both a foundation for a healthy democracy but also for a prosperous economy.”

In considering a city tax for schools, “progressive taxation is something that needs to be considered,” Sorenson said.  

“I don’t think a sales tax on food is something that I could support,” he said. “Taxes on incomes above $250,000 is a place to start,” he said. “I do hope that the City Council will work on this, hold hearings on this and propose something for the public.” 

South Eugene High School (SEHS) teacher Lynette Williams said she has taught Spanish in the 4J District for 15 years. “I teach because I love your children, every single one. I teach because I believe in their greatness. I teach because I realize they are the future, both of the health of our community, and locally nationally and internationally. Since I have begun teaching, I have seen my classroom go from 24 students to 30, to 36, some 40 at our school, and we even have teachers teaching 50. That’s the reality. Paint it how you want to, that’s the reality that we see every day.”

Williams said, “At the same time, we’ve seen the needs of students both socioeconomic as well as academic increase. We’ve also seen state standards increase, more are we asked of every day. But what hasn’t increased is funding for those state standards, funding for those students needs, or funding to decrease the class size. What I see and what I care about as each student walks out my classroom everyday is are they getting what they need? Now, not 10 years from now, not two days from now, now. We live in a wonderful community full of wonderful leaders and great citizens, and I believe in this community, that’s why I live here. I believe in the students. I know we have the capacity to make change. We should not wait for Salem, it’s going to be too long. And we can’t wait nationally, we need to do it now.”

SEHS Principal Randy Bernstein said Williams is only paid to work about half time but “one would think, if they didn’t know that, that she was a full time teacher because of the time you can see her in our building working with kids everyday.”

“Kids deserve the best that our community can provide,” Bernstein said. If the city acts to help schools, “our kids would come away with a lesson that our community cares about them.”

Bernstein said he’s negotiated salary and compensation with teachers and there is a “myth” of “teachers going after all that they can.” At the negotiating table, “they have all made concessions,” he said of teachers taking days without pay. “More importantly, the teachers do not talk about the fact that they are not getting paid; they talk about the fact that it is going to be so difficult to get the curriculum that is provided to the students. That’s their real fear, that they know they are not going to be able to cover everything that they know the kids need.”

Jane Waite, a special education specialist with the local Education Service District, said, “Our students are all our students. No matter where you are in the world, when you see a child in need, you are going to help that child.” Waite said, “We greet each other and say, ‘How are your children?’ That’s the most important indicator of any community’s health.”

Arleen Slattery said the 4J website said that “pay, retirement and benefits were 85 percent of the 4J budget.” She argued that the district should reduce teacher pay and benefits. “No one has talked about PERS.”

PERS cannot be changed by the city or local voters. Reducing the cost of the system has been the subject of legislative and court battles in Salem for the past two decades with no end in sight. Some corporations have declared bankruptcy to substantially reduce their contractually obligated pension liabilities, but such a move by the state could dramatically increase its borrowing costs.  

Chris Henderson, a local attorney, said raising taxes during a recession “seems silly to me.” He said education is more about learning at home than in schools. “It all boils down to the family.”

“I love my job a lot,” said Marcy Hellmann, a parent who bikes to work to teach 27 first graders at River Road/El Camino del Rio Elementary School. Hellman said some of her students are “homeless or close to homeless” with parents that can’t afford to pay more, so, “I would support a tax that would exempt certain lower incomes.”

“I feel the sacrifices that many teachers have already made every day,” Hellman said of the furlough days. “And, yes, it is hard to squeeze a five day Houghton Mifflin curriculum into four days.” She said, “I will make more sacrifices, but I would rather not. I am not afraid to ask for help from those with extra.” 

Paul Keppo said he gave up a successful advertising career in N.Y. to come to the UO and study to be a teacher. “Nobody is getting rich teaching. We need to think about that first and foremost. It’s not something that you choose to go in to make money.”

“We’re really in the state of Oregon at a rock bottom level in terms of school days, class sizes, you’re going to have real problems,” Keppo said.

Kate McCarthy, a 4J parent, said she supported city action for schools. “It’s like we are taking control of our own local community and making it what it needs to be.”

“If we can back the schools and garner support, it’s tremendously beneficial to everyone,” McCarthy said. She said sometimes she is invited to talk to spouses about local schools when her husband’s medical group is recruiting for new employees for the business. In the past, local schools have been a selling point, but with the budget cuts, McCarthy said, “The next time this happens, I don’t know what I am going to say.” She said, “If I were to level with them about what is really going on, I would be turning them away. So I’ll probably just pretend that I am sick.”

Eugene Mayor Piercy thanked everyone for speaking at the forum she sponsored. She disagreed that a lower percentage of 4J’s budget should be spent on teaching. “Wouldn’t you feel really bad if most of the money is going for something other than teaching?” Piercy said. “If 85 percent is going to pay for your children to be taught, that is what is supposed to be going on with schools.”

Jennifer Geller, a 4J School Board member, said regarding education, “At some point, you can’t continue to invest less and expect more. Especially these days when we are training our children for a global economy and the things they need to know are far more complex than when I was in school.”

Geller said teachers have a hard job and have given up pay to do it. “They do incredible work, and we give them harder and harder circumstances to work in every year.” She said the city should act, “because schools are critical, not just for the children we are educating, but for the health of our community.”

“It’s awesome that we filled this room and there is standing room only,” said Joy Marshall, a local organizer with the statewide group Stand for Children. “There’s some real concerns that have to be addressed before, if, we proceed with a new tax.” 

Marshall said the meeting organizers are going to do polling on a possible city tax for schools to find out “if there is support, what kind of support and what kind of tax and how much.” In an interview, Marshall said the group may consider a tax that does not entirely close the local schools budget gap, in light of concerns of raising taxes during a recession. 

Marshall told the meeting, “with this kind of goodwill, this kind of energy, I absolutely believe that we can keep Eugene schools great,” Marshall said. “We have to come together for our schools and we can,” she said. “We have to; it’s very important for our whole community.”

Piercy said she’s seen the state struggle with adequate school funding for two decades. “I don’t care what your view is on taxation, I think you all believe that you want our kids to have the opportunity to be well educated,” she said. 

“With the talent that we have in our community, with the University of Oregon in our community,” Mayor Piercy said, “why shouldn’t Eugene, Oregon be out in front of thinking about how we can get ourselves out of this mess?”