Brushed Aside

Two public schools in Portland find the city has cut them out of arts-tax money.

The city of Portland? Less so.

Portland voters approved the city's arts tax in 2012, a $35-per-adult tax that has raised $8.5 million this year, mostly to help pay for art and music teachers at public elementary schools in the city, including charter schools.

But Southwest Charter School and Ivy Charter School recently learned they won't be getting arts-tax money any longer, even though both are public, lie within city limits and serve Portland students. City officials, citing a quirk in the measure's text, have decided to send the schools' collective $36,000 a year elsewhere.

"It's frustrating," Maurer says. "My kids are missing out."

The 2012 measure, as it appeared on the ballot, said arts-tax money would pay for instruction "for kindergarten-through-fifth-grade students at local public schools attended by Portland students." A message from then-Mayor Sam Adams assured voters the tax would serve Portland students "within the six Portland school districts."

Jessica Jarratt Miller, former executive director of the Creative Advocacy Network that backed the tax, says Ivy and Southwest were meant to be included. "They weren't purposefully excluded," she says.

But a city employee examining enrollment numbers for the two schools found they both had been issued their charters by the Oregon Department of Education—and not part of any school district.

According to the tax's fine print, schools that get arts-tax revenue must be under the umbrella of one of the six local school districts that draw Portland students—Centennial, David Douglas, Portland, Parkrose, Reynolds or Riverdale. 

That includes six other charter schools inside Portland Public Schools' boundaries that have elementary-school students—but not Ivy or Southwest.

Thomas Lannom, director of the city's Revenue Bureau, defends the decision to cut off Southwest and Ivy. He says his office made a mistake by giving the schools the first half of their annual payments. 

Lannom argues they don't qualify under city code and rejects the complaint of parents that their children don't benefit from the arts tax. "Many parents in private schools are paying the arts tax and not getting the benefit," he says.

But Ivy and Southwest are public schools. Southwest, located in the city's South Waterfront, was formed by parents in 2007 after Portland Public Schools closed Smith Elementary and others. Parents tried to charter the school through PPS. But the district, having just closed several schools, rejected their application. Parents had the state education department charter the school.

Ivy, with campuses in the Eliot and Beaumont-Wilshire neighborhoods, also went to the state for its charter after PPS wanted a cap on the school's enrollment.

The two schools got pennies from the arts tax compared with what the larger Portland districts received. But the money meant a lot to the small schools' communities. For Ivy, with 240 students, that had so far amounted to $11,597.74. For Southwest, with 185, the arts money so far came to $6,382.97.

Charter schools don't enjoy universal acclaim in Portland, where they're seen as a drain on neighborhood public schools. They also face criticism from organized labor because the schools aren't required to hire a faculty that's fully licensed or represented by teacher unions. 

Southwest and Ivy aren't entirely independent from the Portland district. The money to run Southwest and Ivy comes from the state. But the two schools cooperate with PPS  to offer services for students with learning disabilities.

The city's argument rests on a narrow reading of what it means to be "within the district." Stephen Bachara, an Ivy dad, interpreted that to be something geographical.

"When we were voting on the tax, I was told that all charter schools would be included, and find it troubling that two charter schools in PPS geographical boundaries are not included," Bachara wrote in a recent email to city officials.

The City Council has made changes before to the arts tax, but members have also said they don't want to make big switches that would require sending the tax back to voters.

Commissioners—responding to criticism that it was too regressive—revised the tax to apply only to Portlanders over 18 who earned more than $1,000 a year. Mayor Charlie Hales also reworded the tax to clarify that people living on Social Security and Oregon public employee pensions are exempt.

No elected official, it seems, wants to touch the arts tax again. Ivy and Southwest parents have asked Hales for help but haven't gotten anywhere. The mayor's office referred WW's questions to Commissioner Nick Fish, who is liaison to the Regional Arts & Culture Council. "We have no plans to amend it," Fish said in a statement.

Commissioners Dan Saltzman and Steve Novick say they're not interested in a fix. Commissioner Amanda Fritz says she would consider including Ivy and Southwest only if the City Council would review the entire arts-tax question.

Anne Gurnee, Southwest Charter School's education director, says she hopes city officials change their minds.

“It’s a simple fix,” says Gurnee. “I don’t think the City Council when crafting this intended to leave us out.” 

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