Portrait of An Arts Tax

It's not clear how a tax on Portlanders will keep its promises to schools.

It used to be kids all over Portland came home from public school splattered in paint, smelling of papier-mâché paste and proudly carrying home their latest creation for the refrigerator door. Art projects were as much a part of grade school as learning to spell, navigating the cafeteria and surviving foursquare.

But no longer. When local schools slash budgets, art education is often the first to go. Many school buildings now have a ghost music room where once students sang, played recorders and banged on xylophones.

Over the past two years, Portland Public Schools, the city's largest district, has eliminated art and music instruction in almost half its elementary schools. Parkrose, Centennial and Reynolds—other school districts within the city—have made similar cuts. The David Douglas district has maintained a full-time music teacher at every elementary school, but district spokesman Dan McCue acknowledges it may be impossible to fund them next year.

A proposed "arts" tax on the Nov. 6 ballot is being sold to voters as a solution. The $35-per-resident city tax would, its backers say, raise $12 million a year and guarantee an art or music teacher in every elementary school.

"We're sowing the seeds for great arts education," says Jessica Jarratt Miller, executive director of Creative Advocacy Network, a lobbying organization that's pushing the tax measure. "Every student in every school will get arts education every week."

But the measure's fine print raises serious questions about those claims and who, besides schoolchildren, will benefit from the new tax.

Emily Nazarov, Portland organizer of Stand for Children, says her group has not yet taken a position on the measure, but its members are taking a skeptical view.

"We have some serious concerns whether the measure will deliver on its promise of music and art teachers in every school," Nazarov says. "The proposed tax imposes a financial burden on schools. And the tax is poorly structured and hits low-income working families hardest."

The tax promises money for schools but falls short on covering the costs of restoring all arts and music teachers.

The measure is a boon to arts nonprofits, which will collect nearly half of the money from the tax.

The measure creates permanent taxpayer funding for local arts groups, including the city's wealthiest. Nearly $4 million a year would go to groups such as the Oregon Symphony, the Portland Art Museum and the Portland Opera—organizations that sell high-priced tickets, rely on private donors and already enjoy large endowments.

Another approximately $1.6 million would go to K-12 schools and nonprofits that work with schools or underserved communities.

The symphony and opera each gave $25,000 to the campaign for the tax, and records show they and other arts groups have been pushing for a dedicated funding stream.

While the idea of an arts tax has been floating around for years, local school districts were only recently brought into the conversation. 

Only a month from the election—there are still no agreements about how the money will get handed out.

Portland economist Eric Fruits has been waging a campaign against the measure, which he says is a cynical attempt to use schoolkids as an excuse to raise taxes and send the money to wealthy arts organizations, such as the symphony and opera.

"These are just almost made-up arguments," Fruits says of claims the tax will help schools in a meaningful way. "They are making promises they can't keep."

And the tax is regressive. People in households with total income below the federal poverty line (currently $19,000 a year for three people, for example) would be exempt. But according to 2011 census data, almost 23,000 Portland households are above the poverty line but still qualify for food stamps—and people in those households would still owe the $35-per-person tax.

Records show the poor will have to file forms with the city's tax officials proving they are exempt. The city plans to use voter rolls and driver's license records to help identify people who should pay the tax, and will unleash bill collectors to go after residents who don't pay.

The arts tax is the inspiration of the Creative Advocacy Network, formed in 2008 to find a way to increase taxpayer money to local arts groups. The "Arts Access and Education Income Tax," as the proposal is called, would provide the first dedicated revenue source from taxpayers to arts organizations.

The plan has had the strong backing of Mayor Sam Adams, and the City Council voted in June to send the issue to voters on the November ballot.

The measure would provide funding for one arts teacher for every 500 elementary students in the city's school districts. That doesn't necessarily mean, however, that every elementary school would get a full-time art or music teacher paid for by the tax. If a district has, say, 1,000 elementary students divided among three schools, the arts tax would pay for two arts teachers and the district would have to pay for a third on its own.

That's a problem for Portland Public Schools, where most of the 58 elementary schools have enrollments well below 500.

David Wynde, PPS's deputy chief financial officer, says the tax could pay for as many as 45 full-time arts teachers in the district's elementary schools, up from 32 currently. 

The district can only afford the existing arts teachers because of a one-time bailout from the city, and those positions could easily go away next year.

But proposals tied to the arts-tax measure would compel the district to keep those positions funded—even if it means cutting in other areas, such as math and science.

Wynde estimates the district's financial burden to operate under the arts-tax plan could be $1.2 million a year. 

"One consequence of this tax," Wynde says, "would be that we have to find that money. We can't cut that."

The money would also go to schools regardless of need.

Nine of the 16 schools that would get a full-time arts teacher from the tax have private foundations, and most of those already pay for arts education through parent donations. Ainsworth Elementary in Southwest, for example, already has a part-time art instructor and a full-time music teacher—and will get another full-time position funded by the arts-tax proposal.

Meanwhile, King Elementary in Northeast, a high-poverty school, would benefit from the measure, according to arts-tax supporters. But the arts tax won't cover even a half-time position at King, a K-8 with 292 students, and the district would be forced to make up the difference.

(The measure would also send $45,000 to the Riverdale School District in tony Dunthorpe, perhaps the last district in Oregon that needs to tax the poor to pay for its arts programs.)

Melissa Goff, executive director of the office of teaching and learning at Portland Public Schools, says arts-tax supporters brought the funding formula to the district as a done deal. "It's a sad thing to say a 1-to-500 ratio would be a stark improvement," she says, "but it's true."

The tax measure might actually raise enough money to put an arts teacher in every school, but for the money that would go to private arts organizations.

Under the measure, almost half the money raised by the $35-per-person tax would be distributed through the Regional Arts and Culture Council, a nonprofit that awards grants from private donors and some local governments, including the City of Portland and Multnomah County.

The measure dedicates at least 5 percent of those funds to schools, or to nonprofits that work in schools, to support arts programs.

The rest would provide taxpayer funding for the operating budgets of marquee organizations such as the symphony and the opera, but also Artists Repertory Theatre, Portland Baroque Orchestra and Film Action Oregon, which runs the Hollywood Theatre.

"Funding schools is just a piece of it," Jarratt Miller says. "No one in arts education believes it's just about teachers."

Fruits, the Portland economist, says voters should be wary of claims that the measure puts schools first.

“I value the arts,” Fruits says, “but the kids have been sprinkled on top like fairy dust.”