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Mike McInally

Mike McInally

The corporate activity tax legislators passed this session should kick another billion dollars or so annually to Oregon’s K-12 public schools, but the measure comes with a couple of hoops that school districts must jump through to claim their share of the funds.

Here’s a refresher about the tax measure: It imposes a tax of 0.57% on a business’ gross receipts over $1 million; the tax is estimated to affect 40,000 or so businesses in the state. The first $1 million in sales is exempt from the tax and businesses will be able to subtract 35% of either their labor or capital costs from their total sales. Since businesses that can do so will certainly pass along their extra costs to consumers, the measure comes with a 0.25 percentage point personal income tax cut for all but the highest income earners; the idea is to compensate consumers for the extra prices businesses may charge. (As an aside, it will be interesting to see how this cut affects collections to the state’s general fund, a point raised last week by state economists in their quarterly report.)

But we digress.

Back in January, when legislators were starting their session, Gov. Kate Brown said that the state would hold school districts accountable by ensuring that any “new dollars are used to improve graduation rates, reduce class sizes and provide a full school year.”

And, to its credit, the measure does include provisions designed to ensure that school districts are accountable for the infusion of revenue they’re expected to get beginning in the 2020-21 school year. (And that money increasingly looks like a sure thing, as opponents to the new tax apparently have abandoned efforts to challenge it at the ballot; perhaps all that energy is going to the effort to recall Brown.)

Districts will have to submit plans about how they will use those funds to improve graduation rates, decrease chronic absenteeism and improve outcomes for historically underserved students. As we have argued in the past, smart school districts will figure out ways to involve their stakeholders in the creation of those plans — and they will make a special effort to reach out beyond the usual crowd of people who attend school board meetings. Really smart districts might use these discussions to increase the number of people who typically attend those meetings. After all, the idea has a certain appeal: We’re getting some extra money! Help us figure out how to spend it! That’s a lot more fun than the usual budget exercise that school districts have offered for decades: Help us figure out where to cut!)

In fact, it might be so much fun that districts might find themselves swamped with ideas from taxpayers. That would be a good thing.

But let us offer a suggestion of our own.

A story by Democrat-Herald reporter Caitlyn May recently noted that the number of librarians employed in Oregon public schools has been on a steep decline over the last three decades. The number of full-time teacher/librarian positions — individuals who obtained a teaching license and then completed graduate work to earn a library media endorsement — declined from 818 in 1980 to 159 in 2017. The decline is pretty much entirely attributable to increasingly tight budgets in public schools; when you’re struggling to keep teachers in your classrooms, the librarian position can seem like a luxury. Besides, aren’t librarians (and books) passe?

Well, no. In fact, the role that trained librarians play may be more important today than ever.

One of the essential skills that students today will have to learn involves media literacy, the ability not just to access important information, but also to be able to assess the reliability of that information. In an online world awash in misleading or outright false information, students without the skills to successfully navigate an ocean of information will be at risk of drowning.

Trained librarians offer life jackets to those students. It would be an excellent use of this windfall for schools to begin reinvest in these increasingly vital positions.