Thursday night, members of the North Clackamas school board are expected to enact a school tax that advocates have been waiting on for years.
Until recently, Oregon forbid school districts from taxing developers to pay for schools. Thursday’s vote and one earlier this week in Oregon City likely precede dozens of similar proposals across the state. As Rob Manning reports, the fee is a long-awaited, small piece of the school-funding puzzle.
Kids come to Happy Valley elementary school these days amid the drone of construction equiptment and the staccato tapping of hammers. Their overcrowded and aging school is being replaced, thanks to an enormous bond that North Clackamas voters passed last fall.
Ron Stewart: “This is the biggest bond levy for schools in Oregon history and this is the most aggressive school construction schedule in Oregon history.”
Ron Stewart is the assistant superintendent for operations for the more than 17-thousand students in the North Clackamas school district.
Ron Stewart: “The first year we’d expect to spend about 24 million, and that’s in construction not property purchases. The next year, we’ll spend about 80 million, same time followed by another 70 million, followed by another 20 or 30 million.”
The North Clackamas bond is worth more than $220 million. Projects include four new schools. But Stewart says the district identified even more needs than that, based largely on the thousands of new students they expect from the new housing developments in the area.
He says in addition to the money there's symbolic value in the new tax.
Ron Stewart: “This is something that the community has been wanting for many, many years, to have the developers contribute towards infrastructure of the school district – considering streets, roads, sewer and schools part of that infrastructure. In the past, there’s been no way to have developers contribute. And so the existing homeowners have always been the ones to participate in a bond levy to build schools.”
Last legislative session, the debate over funding for school construction shifted.
For years, the Homebuilders’ Association of Oregon had blocked efforts to charge developers. But last spring, they helped craft a new tax that allows school boards to attach a per-foot fee on new residential, commercial, and industrial buildings.
As lead lobbyist for the Oregon School Boards’ Association, David Williams helped get the fee through the Capitol. He says more than twenty districts are actively working on a fee, and at least that many are considering one.
David Williams: “I’d say about a quarter of the districts within six months to a year, will adopt this. You’re looking at a good 50 out of the 200 are eager to get this on the table.”
So far, districts say they've heard virtually no opposition to the construction fees. But, they say, those fees are far from a cure-all.
One that Molalla River is considering for instance is expected to raise only about $400,000. And Ron Stewart with North Clackamas says taxing a big subdivision in his district would fall far short of paying for an entire school.
Ron Stewart: “If we had 500 new homes at two-thousand square feet, that would bring in an excise tax of a dollar a square foot, or a million dollars. An elementary school might cost $14 million. So, a million dollars for 500 houses would cover about four classrooms, and that’s not a school, obviously.”
State school board lobbyist David Williams says the new developer tax was a breakthrough, but it doesn’t change how school construction is really funded – with local bond measures, like the huge one in North Clackamas.
That’s little solace for the 17 school districts where voters rejected bonds. School advocates are looking at two other potential breakthroughs in the next two years.
One is a vote next year to rollback the double-majority rule. That’s the law requiring a majority of voters turnout, as well as a majority “yes” vote, to approve tax measures in most elections.
Lobbyist David Williams says another idea is to offer a state match for local communities that can’t get support for big multi-million dollar bond measures.
David Williams: “Let’s say if you’re going out for a bond in a more traditionally conservative, or more depressed communities, cutting it in half may make it a much more favorable proposition.”
But using the state’s bonding authority to help local school districts didn’t get far with lawmakers this year.
Neverthethess, school advocates say it’ll be among a number of funding ideas before lawmakers in 2009.