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Eugene Weekly : Feature : 3.24.11

School Fight

Campaigns kick off for and against local fundingû

by Alan Pittman

The battle for local school funding heated up this month with kickoffs for dueling campaigns for and against a $17 million temporary city income tax to save local kids from the four-day school weeks and crowded classrooms that are threatened by massive budget cuts.û

A local group of parents is leading the pro-schools campaign, øStrong Schools Eugene." The group says the measure will not only help kids but create jobs by attracting and retaining high-paying local employers who value education. The progressive income tax measure is endorsed by a diverse list of more than 220 local citizens including current Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy and Jim Torrey, former Eugene mayor and former chairman of the Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce board.

About 200 supporters gather in the Kelly library
A group of about 20 gathers for the opposition

The anti-tax group, Citizens for Jobs and Schools, says it hopes to raise $100,000 to defeat the local school funding measure. The anti-school funding group has a private-school parent as its spokesperson, a developer lobbyist from Yachats as its campaign manager, and is backed by an anti-government group, Americans for Prosperity (AFP), financed by the oil-billionaire Koch brothers and based in Washington, D.C.û

Theres little wonder Eugenes innovative local school funding measure has drawn outside opposition and national attention including coverage in the Wall Street Journal. The idea of cities competing for jobs, not with a race to the bottom in cutting taxes, but in providing good schools and other services, could be a powerful game changer if it spreads.

Strong Schools Eugene rallied about 200 cheering supporters, largely women and children, to pack the library of Kelly Middle School March 8.û

Mayor Piercy called for citizens to support the øtemporary targeted local progressive income tax" measure on the May ballot. øTheres nothing more important to our kids," Piercy said.û

øIf we keep taking away from our public school system, we may end up having one that does not prepare our kids for the future," the mayor said. øI felt and many people felt that we are sort of at a crisis point. We look to the state for the real resolution of the funding issues, but in the meantime this good community said, lets look to see what we can do together to bridge the gap, to hold back the bleeding, to stop losing and take care of our kids."

øEconomists have written to us and spoken to us and said, you know, it is about our kids and their future, but it is about our city and our local economy, and it cant be successful if we dont have good schools," Piercy said, referring to a report from ECONorthwest economists showing that the measure would create jobs. û

øOur children have to know that they matter so much to us that well do what it takes," Piercy said.û

Local State Rep. Phil Barnhart couldnt get away from Salem for the rally but sent a letter that was read explaining why the city tax is needed. øSchools in Oregon have always been supported by local taxes and managed by local school boards," Barnhart wrote. øWith the tax cuts that were adopted in the 1990s, the Legislature tried and failed to make up the loss."

øWe cannot depend on the state to take care of Eugene students when it cannot even adequately fund statewide responsibilities like universities and health care for the poor. Strong schools are essential to the success of Eugenes children and our local economy," Barnhart said.

Sabrina Parsons, CEO of Palo Alto, a Eugene company with 43 employees making business plan software, hammered home the economic importance of schools to local jobs.û

The funding measure øwill keep our schools strong, and the stronger our schools are the stronger our economy is," Parsons said. øNobody is going to come to a place like Eugene if the schools arent strong."

Parsons said she chose to build her company in Eugene in significant part because of the øexcellent education" local schools could offer her three children.û

Palo Alto has created 20 new local jobs in the last two years, but the schools øpicture is not looking so rosy," Parsons said. øWere growing, and we want to hire more people and it [schools] is the question we get when we are recruiting top talent."û

øTheyre comparing us" on the quality of public schools, Parsons said of the employees she tries to recruit. øThey are looking us up on websites and they are grading us ... That is a big way people were recruiting are going to decide if they are going to move to Eugene," she said.û

Parsons said some people want to wait for state action to fund local schools, but øwe cant wait for the state to make it better. In four or five years, our schools are going to be in a dismal state."

She said others have argued that people might leave Eugene to dodge the local school tax, but øjust wait to see what happens in four or five years if our schools are in the state they are going to be in, because people will move out of Eugene."û

øAs a business owner and as a parent, it is something that I will face," Parsons said of relocating her company for better schools. øI want the best education I can get for my three sons, and if I cant get it here in Eugene, I will have to make that decision, and as an owner of a business I can make that decision. I tell you, I get calls from Bend and Beaverton and Vancouver, Wash., all people wanting us to move our business to their towns. It is not something we have ever considered or weve ever wanted to do, but," Parsons said, øof the 43 people we employ, there are 36 kids in my company ... I can tell you, the schools get bad, I dont think Ill have any trouble moving my company and my employees because so many of them need the strong schools as well."

øFrom the business perspective, it isnt ideal; nobody wants a new tax," Parsons said. øBut it is the situation we are in, and if we can help the schools and pass this tax, then we can put pressure in the right place on the state and fix things because everybody knows that has to happen. I dont think that passing this tax is going to make that not happen, because we need to do this ‹ it is a crisis ‹ and then we can put the pressure on what we need to fix."

øHow great would it be in five years that Eugene could stand out and say, through this crisis ‹ through something the entire U.S. went through ‹ we rose and did the right thing and now we are growing, and we are a very desirable place to be in." Parsons said. øThings have turned around because we have the best schools in Oregon."û

Roscoe Caron, a retired Kelly teacher, said the ødeepest economic crisis since the Great Depression" has lead to the Eugene school funding crisis. øTheres an economic crisis going on that was not caused by 8-year-old kids," Caron said. øKindergarten teachers did not cause it."û

øThese are times that demand that responsible adults respond to the needs of their children and their communities," Caron said. øThats why we are here."

øTheres nothing left to give up, if we want a decent educational opportunity for our children," Caron said, citing years of local school budget cuts. He noted lost school nurses, counselors, and cut shop, language, art and music programs. He said teachers wages have also been frozen and cut and teachers have had to pay more for insurance and health care.

Caron said that frequent increases in class sizes have been the øtoughest" cuts. øFor those who think it makes little difference, Im here to tell you that ratios matter: Think of what happens if you go into a big home improvement store and they only have one or two staff members available to help you. Do you get the best level of service? Ratios matter. Do you think many private schools that wealthy families send their kids to have 38 students in a class? No."

Kevin Gordon, a River Road elementary parent and local real estate broker, said østrong schools is something that Eugene has promised to people for years and its been part of the promise of Eugene."

But now Eugene is at risk of losing one of its best assets, according to Gordon. øIn the last three years alone, 4J has cut $30 million from its budget, and with those cuts weve had increased class sizes and reduced instructional days and thats not acceptable."

øWe need to restore those instructional days and we need to hold the line on class size so we can continue to say weve got world class schools. For all of our kids, instructional days matters, ratios matter and class size matters."

As a realtor, øI get asked all the time, so what about the schools, what about the schools?" Gordon said. øWere losing our world class schools, and it matters because strong schools are not just good for kids, they are good for the business environment as we try to recruit good businesses and innovative companies to this town."

Jorge Lopez Contreras, a senior at Bethels Willamette High School said, øteachers inspired me and encouraged me and they taught me how to dream." He said, øI really support this local tax."

Contreras said he came to school not speaking English but now has ølimitless" possibilities thanks to his education. øIts really the American dream: Son of a hard-working immigrant goes to school, works hard and goes on to become a successful adult."

øIf it wasnt for the schools I attended, I probably wouldnt be standing here in front of all of you today," he said. For people in America øno matter who they are, schools are their ticket to a better life," Contreras said. øThis is a promise that America gives to everybody."

Hillary Johnson, a local parent with two kids who has volunteered to chair the school funding campaign, asked people in front rows to look back at the standing-room-only crowd packed into the school library. øLook at this sea of support."

øI dont want this generation of school kids, my kids, my neighbors kids, my friends kids and every school kid in Eugene to suffer because of the incredible harm we are doing by financially starving our schools," Johnson said, her voice breaking with emotion.

øYear after year after year, we are asking our school and our teachers to do more with less," Johnson said. øIn both Bethel and 4J school districts, the children have had to bear the brunt of multi-million-dollar cuts and next fall more cuts are planned. This will mean laying off more than 100 teachers and increasing already large class sizes and cutting six or more school days from our calendar in Oregon, a state that already has the second shortest school year in the nation."

In jobs terms, Johnson said, øWe need education for our workforce so business can hire good people locally. We need a decent public education system to attract new employers and top level employees. The quality of public schools is a major factor in business location decisions."

The ømodest temporary measure" is øfor the sake of our children" and economic development, Johnson said. The four-year tax exempts the poor and has a progressive rate structure with rates rising with income, similar to federal taxes. For a family of four making $50,000 after deductions, øwere talking $150 a year, its not a very expensive tax," Johnson said. For that temporary, four-year tax, øwe can hold the line on class sizes and restore cut school days in Eugene," Johnson said.û

øEugene is an extraordinary city," Johnson said. øI know the people of Eugene value their children, value education and value the opportunities education provides." She said, øLets provide our own solution until the state acts to address the problem and lets show the rest of the state, the country and even the world that Eugene cares."

The Opposition

On March 16 opponents of the school funding measure kicked off their campaign with about 20 supporters at the Amazon community center in south Eugene.û

Jennifer Solomon served as group spokesperson with about 16 measure opponents, mostly older men, standing behind her. Solomon repeatedly referred to øour kids" in opposing the public school funding measure, but Solomons children attend private school.

A graduate of Marist, Solomon has sat on the Catholic high schools foundation board of directors. A year ago, Solomon contributed $1,000 of her unspent campaign funds to the St. Paul Parish School, a Catholic preschool to eighth grade with 300 students in north Eugene.

Solomon, who just finished two terms as Eugenes most right-wing city councilor, is the granddaughter of local timber baron Stub Stewart and was trusted by Sarah Palin to ask a pre-screened question at a Republican fundraiser in Eugene last year.û

øWe expect it will probably cost around $100,000 to run this campaign, and so we are just in the beginning stages of that," Solomon said. She argued that Eugene schools should wait for changes in education laws from the state Legislature rather than acting locally.

So far the PAC against Eugene school funding has reported raising $7,605, including seven $1,000 contributions. Those contributors include the Giustina Land & Timber Co., Cascade Title President Thomas McMahon, the Rosboro Lumber Co. of Springfield, lumber broker A.J. Giustina, McKenzie Properties, McKenzie Capital Managing Director Andy J. Storment and Stingray Holdings, owned by developer Steve Lee, according to state reports filed by a Republican operative in Rainier, Ore. along the Columbia River.

Solomon announced that the anti-school measure PACs campaign manager is Roxie Cuellar, a lobbyist for developers and home builders who lives on the coast in Yachats.û

Cuellar coached Solomon not to answer a question at the press conference about why the group is focusing on opposing the Eugene effort to help schools rather than on pushing for changes in Salem, as they argue others should do. School supporters have lobbied for a solution to the school funding crisis in Salem for two decades with no success.

In response to a question, Solomon admitted that solutions in Salem could be harder to pass than the local measure. øIts true that the state Legislature is a much larger hurdle," she said.

Asked repeatedly for specifics on what changes from the Legislature the group wants instead of the local funding, Solomon provided few answers other than calling for cuts in contracted health care and retirement plans for teachers.û

øWe are not here to undermine the morale of school teachers and staff," Solomon said.

The Koch brothers AFP group, which tried to drum up turnout for the anti-school funding rally in Eugene, is now lobbying in the state Legislature against bills that would increase local school funding. The shadowy Koch brothers live in Kansas and New York City and have become leading but often covert funders of right-wing causes across the nation including Tea Party radicals, according to press reports, including an investigation by The New Yorker magazine.û

Kirsten Haugen, a volunteer mom in the school funding campaign, attended the opposition rally. øI did not hear a concrete proposal of any kind, just their opposition to a local response. What I want to know is what they expect todays kids to do in the years that it takes Salem to come up with any kind of solution?"

An angry woman at the opposition rally demanded that an EW reporter reveal whether he had any relatives working for øthe government." The woman, who refused to identify herself, said she objected to questions about why the group wasnt instead focusing on the Legislature.û

Laura Cooper in the opposition group also said she objected to the questions at the press conference. Cooper recently wrote an opinion piece for The Register-Guard opposing the school funding measure as ønothing short of tyranny." Cooper is listed as the board council for the Lane County Republicans group. She blogged last year that øwealth redistribution through federal tax collection shall be abolished." Cooper called in her blog for the repeal of health-care reform because, in her view, it would result in the øextermination of the unborn, the elderly, or other medically vulnerable people such as myself."û

Solomon said the 4J School Boards referral of a $70 million bond measure for buildings to the same May ballot as the income tax for school operations will make it easier for her anti-tax group. øHaving those two issues on the ballot will frustrate voters, and they are more likely to just vote no, no."

The 4J School Board last week unanimously endorsed the city tax for schools.û

Eugene voters have a history of strongly supporting school finance measures. Last year, state Measures 66 and 67 to increase income taxes on the wealthy and corporations to help support public schools passed in Eugene by a 3-1 margin.û

øI am so frustrated that we passed Measures 66 and 67," Solomon said.