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As mayor, Ted Wheeler has little power to fund new schools, but he thinks new developer fees would be a good start.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Mayor Ted Wheeler speaks to a team of news reporters and editors at the Pamplin Media Group headquarters Friday. As Portland grows by leaps and bounds, there is still no concrete plan to build any new schools in the city.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler — who admits his position plays a "bit role" in education policy arena — says he sees one solution as charging developers fees for building new schools.

"We need a bigger vision around education infrastructure," he said.

A new school system development charge (SDC) would be a significant shift in both statewide policy and the level of cooperation between city government and local school districts.

Wheeler — as part of a wide-ranging Friday morning interview with the Portland Tribune reporting staff and editorial board — pointed out that the city already charges new housing projects in order build new parks, utilities and roads.

"If I were a candidate for governor — which I'm not — I would really hone in on that as an opportunity that I think would both be popular and interesting," Wheeler said. "Understanding, I do not control education. I do not control educational resources. But it's just noteworthy to me that we don't connect development to changing needs around school infrastructure."

State law is clear that cities can only charge developers for five areas of capital improvements: water, sewers, roads, parks and drainage.

In 2007, a bill to add schools to that list never got to the floor for a vote. It was co-sponsored by then-state Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, who is now a U.S. Congresswoman representing northwest Oregon, including parts of Portland.

The reelection campaign for Governor Kate Brown directed questions about the governor's stance on this issue to the governor's office, which did not immediately return requests for comment.

Knute Buehler, the Republican candidate for governor, said he would oppose the idea.

"Adding development costs to new housing that is already unaffordable for too many working Oregonians would make our housing crisis even worse, and it is not a solution to a classroom funding crisis brought about by state leaders' refusal to pursue real, cost-saving reforms to pensions and benefits," Buehler said in a statement. "Reforms to these programs would bring badly needed fiscal relief to school districts, freeing up resources that would allow us to recapture the lost school year and rise to the top five in graduation rates."

Currently, Oregon school districts look to district-wide property tax bond measures for a new school. A construction excise tax — 0.12 percent assessed on permits for new buildings — also brings in money from new developments but not enough for a new school.

Portland Public Schools, which serves most of the city through more than 80 school buildings, is in the middle of a 30-year plan to roll out regular bond measures to update its largely dilapidated facilities. The latest bond measure, passed in 2017 to patch up some K-8 schools and rebuild three high schools, is already projected to be $100 million overbudget.

There are no official plans to build any new PPS schools. Some have pointed to the new neighborhood planned on the U.S. Post Office site in downtown Portland as an opportunity for a new school.

David Douglas School District in East Portland owns property in Gateway that leaders would like to build on, but there are no concrete plans nor identified funding.

Wheeler acknowledged the push would have to be led by school districts, but added: "I would very much like to provide whatever leadership that I could provide as the mayor."

UPDATE (7/16/18): Information on the construction excise tax was added.


Shasta Kearns Moore
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