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No rate hike planned for property tax measure expected to bring in more than $100 million to pay for Portland teachers

Portland voters will be asked in November to renew a five-year local option tax levy to pay for school teachers, but they won't be asked to pay a higher rate.

PMG FILE PHOTO - A Clackamas County teacher instructs an elementary school student in 2018. This November, Portland voters will be asked to renew a local option tax levy that has recently funded more than 800 public school teachers. The levy taxes property owners at $1.99 per $1,000 of assessed value, bringing in close to $100 million and currently funds more than 800 teachers in the Portland Public Schools district.

After a unanimous school board vote Tuesday evening, Aug. 13, the levy renewal will head to the county elections office for placement on the November 2019 ballot.

The levy amount won't change—despite suggestions made the week prior by budget committee members to hike the rate—and its purpose remains the same, but it took the board over an hour and several moments of heated discussion to come to a unanimous vote on precisely what language to include in the ballot measure.

Specificity was at the core of contention Tuesday evening.

As written, the ballot caption would describe the tax as a "levy renewal to maintain teaching positions and classroom supports."

"I think, I'd like to ask what the benefit of adding 'classroom supports' is, because it could unnecessarily complicate the discussion of the levy," board member Rita Moore said, echoing input from fellow board director Michelle DePass and PPS staff who pointed out that classroom supports, such as reading specialists, are teachers, but the language could confuse voters into thinking the money is being used for more broad purposes.

Moore's question opened up a swarm of dialog among directors about how exactly to craft the ballot language to be accurate and win voter approval. Challenging suggestions to remove the words "classroom supports," board member Julia Brim-Edwards suggested the language as written, gives the district "flexibility."

PPS administrators insisted that the funds would only be used to pay for certificated classroom staff, regardless of semantics.

Eilidh Lowery, one of three recently elected members on the board, said she wanted to be careful not to "over promise and under deliver" on the quantity of teachers the tax measure could fund. When it came before voters in 2014, the levy promised to pay for at least 640 teachers, but PPS says the tax actually paid for an average of 825 positions each year, reinforcing the district's "equitable staffing model and commitment to providing necessary supports for struggling students."

The drawn-out discussion was less an indicator of the board's inability to build concensus and get work done and more a reflection of what's at stake with the levy.

During previous meetings on the issue, PPS staff said losing the levy revenue would be "catasrophic" to the district, and result in mass teacher layoffs.

After a three-minute recess amid the levy discussion, PPS Board Chair Amy Kohnstamm was eager to call for a vote on the item, thanking her fellow directors for "robust discussion" on what is easily one of the most critical funding pieces for the district.

The ballot measure promises independent audits of the annual spending.

What will the levy cost you?

If approved by voters again in November, the PPS local option levy would continue to tax property owners at $1.99 per $1,000 of assessed value. For a home assessed at $234,000, it amounts to roughly $39 a month, or $466 a year.

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