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Happy Sounds Of Music Echo From Divisive Arts Tax

The city of Portland’s arts tax has been battered by lawsuits, city council revisions and confusion, practically since it passed, a year ago November.

This week, the arts tax oversight committee learned that thousands of Portland residents haven’t paid the $35 annual tax.

Arts groups are disappointed with their share so far. School districts have received millions.

Rob Manning visited a music room at a school in the Centennial district.

The Pharrell Williams’ hit song, “Happy,” suits the mood of sixth graders in the Oliver Elementary choir, like Austin Black.

“It feels good. It’s like, you get happy, because you’re with your friends. And then, you sing. It’s more music,” Black said.

Oliver Elementary School music teacher Katie Robinson leads the choir through early morning warmups.

Oliver Elementary School music teacher Katie Robinson leads the choir through early morning warmups.

Rob Manning/OPB

Portland officials report the mandate and funding from the voter-approved arts tax has expanded offerings across the elementary grades in the city’s six school districts.

In the city’s largest district — Portland Public — music and visual arts drew roughly equal shares of the arts funding pie.

In East Portland districts, like Centennial, music was the top priority.

Katie Robinson is the arts tax-funded teacher at Oliver Elementary. She directs choir rehearsals — but most of her day is spent doing grade-level music instruction.

On this morning, third graders quietly file in, and sit on the blue risers in the back.

Oliver Elementary Principal Laura Fendall

Oliver Elementary Principal Laura Fendall

Rob Manning/OPB

“I’m going to play a song for you right now, and I want you to see if you can find the beat.” Robinson says to them.

The third graders find the beat and identify instruments that are playing.

Principal Laura Fendall says music is proven to help kids achieve academically. She says it’s great having another adult in the building who sees every child.

“This is a very high poverty school. So that stability and continuity of mentorship and relationship is really critical,” Fendall says.

Robinson also sees the value in music in the schools.  “Now I have kids who come during recess, and they want to learn a song on the piano, or practice their recorder and things like that - and I’m able to do that, I’m able to give them that time.

“For me, when I have a student who’s maybe having a hard time at home, kind of struggling with all the things that these kids have on their plates, they come to me, and say ‘you know what, I really love that song,’ or ‘I really want to learn this’ or ‘I want to do something special.’ It gives them that opportunity to stand in a different light, and be in a different place, and be able to express themselves in ways that maybe they weren’t able to at home.”

Robinson says sometimes that leads to a new song.

Sixth graders at Oliver Elementary wrote a song together — it’s to the tune of a Bruno Mars’ song.

As the choir belts out the new school song, there are dance steps and hand movements that the fifth and sixth graders do with various levels of enthusiasm.

Twins Megan and Austin Walton helped write the song — and sing it, as members of the choir. Which did they like better?

“I hated making the song, but I love singing it. I thought it was fun,” says Megan.

“I kinda liked making it, but singing it? I dislike it completely, because I’m a person who does not like ‘exotic hand expressions’.” Austin says.

Oliver Elementary School in the Centennial School District

Oliver Elementary School in the Centennial School District

Rob Manning/OPB

A school can get money from the tax so long as its boundary includes a part of Portland. One-third of Centennial’s students live outside of Portland, but every district school got arts tax money. Because they all have some Portland children.

It’s a favorable structure for Centennial. Oliver Elementary principal, Laura Fendall, has been in Centennial for more than 30 years. She says trying to get voter support for arts education in all of Centennial, for instance, would be tough.

“It’s questionable whether it could pass or not,” Fendall says.

The music program is building connections with parents — something she expects will hit a high point next month, when Oliver Elementary holds its first evening concert.

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