Last week we wrote about a Portland, Oregon ballot initiative to better fund public schools. The measure was defeated by a narrow margin on Tuesday. The following article by Susan Nielsen appeared in the May 16 edition of the Oregonian….
Portland isn’t the kind of city to have nail-biting elections over school taxes. Levies “coast to victory” in the news headlines here. A special income tax will “pass easily by wide margins,” even during an economic downturn.
Bonds pass, too — until this week, when Portland voters narrowly rejected a $548 million capital bond and upended conventional wisdom about their loyalties and limits. This man-bites-dog result provides some invaluable lessons for the district and its campaign team as they regroup for the next bond effort.
Starting with this lesson: Never take voters for granted. Listen to what they’re saying now — not what they’ve said in the past.
Early polling suggested broad support for a bond measure for Portland Public Schools. Election history also pointed to victory, with 58 percent of voters approving the last bond, more than 60 percent approving a special income tax and 63 percent approving the last levy. Portland appeared unstoppable, even as many other Oregon districts struggled with multiple rejections of more modest local tax measures.
The pro-schools track record may have dulled the district’s senses. (Of course voters will come through. Of course Portlanders will make sacrifices for school kids, once they see enough of those homespun yellow signs that say, “Portland (heart) Schools.” Of course the public will trust the district to work out the details later.)
School leaders and campaigners didn’t quite fathom the opposition brewing in pro-schools strongholds, including neighborhoods near Grant High and parent groups in the Sylvan Hills. They wrote off the grumblings as isolated complaints rather than major red flags.
They won’t do that again.
Another lesson for the next bond campaign is to reflect the mood of the electorate, both in the substance of the bond package and in the political messaging. Campaigners did try to emphasize the district’s most urgent needs, such as seismic upgrades and boiler replacements, but the “keep-up-with-the-Joneses” undertones kept creeping back in.
Campaign co-Chairman Jeff Cogen, chairman of the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, was a repeat offender on this front. He used the expression “21st century schools” a lot, and he emphasized that Portland students need facilities on par with the ones in the suburbs. He often characterized the bond as costly, but concluded that our kids deserve it. (In one interview posted on the campaign’s Facebook page, Cogen used the word “expensive” five times in 80 seconds.)
Cogen wasn’t the only one. Other campaign leaders struck similar notes as they promoted or defended the big ask.
Unfortunately, this is not the year to talk about kids deserving the best. That was 2007. This is also not the best year to have goodies in your bond proposal, such as mobile technology carts or athletic fields. The economy hasn’t recovered enough for that. Turns out Portland needed a bond package that focused entirely on 1) protecting children’s safety and 2) shoring up residential property values through a 3) public works project that will create middle-class jobs for local families.
Instead, too many Portland voters got the vague sense they were being asked to cough up big bucks to give a few thousand lucky kids the best — while enriching some big-donor private construction firms in the process.
It’s much easier to armchair quarterback with a frosty pint of hindsight than to run a campaign. It’s also easy to overlook the considerable political victory: Portland voters resoundingly approved a five-year levy at the state’s maximum tax rate, and they came within a hair’s breadth of approving the largest school bond in state history. These numbers are quite a feat in this economy, and the district is well-situated for a second run at a bond measure this fall or next spring.
Still, I’d hate for Portland school leaders to shrink the bond without rethinking their message — or to blame the bond loss entirely on economic factors. Voters could approve the next bond attempt in a still-shaky economy, and they could reject the next bond despite a clear economic recovery. The real X factor here isn’t entirely about money.
It’s that Portland’s love for schools may no longer be unconditional.