Budget crunches have residents, schools making tough decisions

BURNS, Ore. -- For decades, most people in Oregon ranch country held two things dear: their high school football team and their disdain for new taxes.

But lately, it's begun to seem like only the hated taxes can save the beloved football team.

Like many other areas around the country, schools in Harney County are reeling from a lack of funding. And in Burns, school board members had to cut the entire sports budget.

So on Tuesday, voters in the steadfastly conservative county will weigh in on a three-year, 0.75 percent income tax increase for school activities and supplies.

Other conservative strongholds also have considered local school taxes to make up for state cuts. In Idaho, voters in Coeur d'Alene overwhelmingly approved a two-year levy totaling $10.1 million. School levies in Helena, Mont., offset a $2 million shortfall in state funding. And a property tax increase devoted to schools is under consideration in Mountain Brook, Ala.

If the tax vote is successful in remote Harney County, supporters and opponents alike say it could mark the start of a change in how deeply rural Oregonians will dig for their local schools.

A bellwether

"It's an important bellwether for other similar communities facing the same type of issues," said Russ Dondero, a political science professor at Pacific University in Forest Grove. "They should be carefully watching this issue, and how it plays in Harney County. If it fails, people will say, 'Well, that strategy is not going to work."'

Members of a sports booster group called "Save Our District Activities," or SODA, recently raised $143,000 for the athletics program. Sisters of Kellen Clemens, a quarterback at the University of Oregon, took bids for their services as ranch-hands, and rancher Scott Franklin, a pilot, volunteered to fly to Portland to pick up a dozen boxes of Krispy Kreme doughnuts to sell.

SODA members didn't think they could do that again next year -- the community, they say, is tapped out.

Supporters of the tax planned to personally contact just about every one of the county's 4,080 registered voters to make their pitch. Randy Fulton, one of SODA's leaders, printed out packets of voter lists for a telephone drive.

"I went to this high school," Franklin said. "I can't imagine growing up here with no extracurriculars. It gives schools an identity and pride."

'Living within our means'

Supporters are up against years of heartfelt anti-tax sentiment among one-time loggers who have lost their jobs and ranchers who fight a tough, dry climate for their living.

"My opinion is, we need to start living within our means," said rancher Tony Urizar. "There's a lot of people pushing it, but the silent majority is sitting out there, and I don't think they will let it happen."

Others say they're not against kicking in more money for schools, but wish the bulk of the money would go to academics, not athletics.

"I don't think we should pay 80 percent for sports, 10 percent for books," said Barbara Martel, who comes to town weekly for a sewing circle with a group of other women. "Education has to be the priority. There's too much emphasis on sports, I think."

In the end, Harney County residents on both sides of the issue said, the vote will probably be a nail-biter.

In a handout to core members of the pro-tax committee, Fulton put it this way: "September 16, Election day. September 17. ... A lot of decisions will have to be made either way."