Oregon Public Broadcasting

A week from Tuesday, Beaverton will find out whether local voters are willing to pay more for their schools.

Beaverton voters have been reliable supporters of school funding measures in years past. But school advocates have another opponent this time around: the economy.

Beaverton's five-year local option levy would raise about $14 million a year. It would raise property taxes up to a dollar per thousand of assessed value, but because of Oregon's complicated property tax laws, actual increases would vary. What it aims to pay for is not so complicated.

There are 36 freshmen in this Westview High algebra class. That's about ten students more than principal, Mike Chamberlain, would like.

Mike Chamberlain: "It's an entry-level course in Algebra, they need to be successful in that. All high schools really work hard to have kids get their basic credits as a 9th grader - English, math, science, social studies, especially."

Chamberlain says that kids who have trouble in those freshman classes can struggle even more, when they reach higher level classes.

Aaron Johnson teaches statistics. He says his current classes are manageable - but barely - at up to 45 students.

Aaron Johnson: "The bigger my classes, the less attention I can give those individual students, which unfortunately means the more are likely to slip through, that could've passed my class, and now aren't. Or, what I fear, too, is that they could get an 'A', but they're getting a 'C'."

Beaverton's school levy wouldn't immediately reduce the size of Johnson's current stats class, or of any classroom in Oregon's third largest school district. It's a hedge against possible future increases in class sizes, if state funding erodes.

In years past, Beaverton has gotten strong majorities to vote in favor of school bonds and levies.

Mark Wiener: "Of course, in a challenging economy, people are much more sensitive to what the money is going for, and if it is an important expenditure."

That's Mark Wiener, a political consultant who's worked on campaigns for both candidates and ballot measures. He says they're entirely different.

Mark Wiener: "A public funding campaign, whether it's for schools, or public safety, or open spaces or parks, or libraries, is much more like a retail sale than it is an electoral campaign. At the end of the day, we are asking voters to purchase a product."

Beaverton software developer, Dennis Cruise, has no interest in the product Wiener and Beaverton school advocates are selling. Cruise says he supports police and fire levies. But he doesn't have kids in school, and believes school leaders rely too much on property tax payers.

Dennis Cruise: "We need to look at the structure of what they're doing, as opposed to just saying 'We don't have enough money, let's put another levy out there, because we need to raise more cash.' If I could do that - I would!" 

Cruise just lost his job, but he says that doesn't affect how he's voting. But the economy is affecting longtime supporters of the school district, like Ted Argo, who says his income as an architect has fallen by two-thirds.

Ted Argo: "For us, it isn't a matter of selling it as a good idea. But it's just, whether the dollars are there or not."

Back on the sidewalk outside Westview High, school advocates are hoping people will use the down economy as a reason to vote "yes." Karen Cunningham sits on the Beaverton school board, and heads the "yes" campaign.

Karen Cunningham: "We have support of businesses large and small who understand that good schools are really part of building a strong economy in the community. So, we're hearing people say that we can't afford not to do this, because it's threatening the basics for our kids."

Beaverton is the only school district in Oregon with a local option on the ballot, this fall. Two other districts - Culver and Myrtle Point - are asking voters to approve bond measures for construction projects.

Ballots have to be in the hands of election officials by 8:00 PM, next Tuesday.

Sources for this story came from OPB's Public Insight Network. Find out more at opb.org/publicinsight

This story originally appeared on news.opb.org.