Group looks beyond Measure 30

Christine Ertl thinks Oregon treats its children abysmally.

She wants better health care for children, more educational opportunities, safer neighborhoods and improved day care and after-school programs.

As chairwoman of the Salem-Keizer chapter of Stand for Children, a citizen-based lobbying group, Ertl, the mother of two school-age children, gets passionate when she thinks about arguments that would limit funding for schools and services for children.

She wants the trend to move in the other direction.

“We don’t have the power of money. We don’t have the power of politicians,” Ertl said. “But we do have the power of numbers.”

As some voters already were opening their mailboxes Saturday to find envelopes containing ballots for a Feb. 3 special election on tax Measure 30, about 50 Stand members from throughout Oregon spent the weekend in a leadership training conference in rural West Salem.

It was not a last-minute rally or campaign to get voters to pass Measure 30. It was one of three training conferences that the Oregon chapters hold every year to discuss children’s issues and teach volunteers about fact-finding in their communities, lobbying elected officials, understanding government, and building stronger and more effective local chapters.

On Saturday, they stopped for a lunch break to talk about children’s issues as well as the status of education in Oregon and the Salem-Keizer area.

It isn’t that the Salem-Keizer area and the state don’t have good programs and opportunities for children, Stand members said, but there are not enough, and what does exist is diminishing.

The Salem-Keizer area is not without successes in these areas, Ertl said. The school district has fabulous music and athletic programs, she said. Students score well on the SAT. The area has a huge base of community organizations that incorporate a lot of volunteers.

Barbara Ross, organizer for Stand in Salem-Keizer, moved to the area about 30 years ago because she thought it would be a good place to raise children. The school system was good when her children were young, Ross said. It started to struggle after the property-tax-capping Measure 5 was passed in 1990.

In June, the Salem-Keizer school board limited middle-school athletics, increased student fees, cut classroom supplies and cut many positions in alternative education, curriculum and assessment as a way to deal with a budget deficit.

“You can just see the tick, tick, tick of the quality declining,” Ross said.

It isn’t just schools, Stand members said, but also cuts to the Oregon Health Plan, which affect children and their families. Fewer public-safety dollars makes neighborhoods unsafe, turning children into the victims and even perpetrators of crime, they said.

“Children do not have political power, so people who care about children need to speak up and they need to speak up in an organized fashion,” said Stand’s Oregon director, Joy Marshall.

Stand began simultaneously in Oregon, Maryland and Tennessee in 1999 and has expanded since then. Oregon has about 1,200 Stand members.

Nationwide, chapters have successfully lobbied for more than $275 million in funding for children’s programs in the past four years, according to the organization.

Stand members do support the passage of Measure 30, which would avoid $544.6 million in state budget cuts to programs and services.

Opponents have called the Legislature’s tax-increase measure excessive. The Oregon branch of Citizens for a Sound Economy, which seeks a no vote on Measure 30, worry that the tax increase would persuade businesses to go elsewhere and take Oregon jobs with them. They also have expressed concerns about another vulnerable population, senior citizens, who would lose tax breaks on medical expenses.

Among the biggest obstacles to helping children in Oregon is a tax system that is not working, Oregon Stand members said. The group is working with other advocates on designing tax reform and thinks that limiting business tax deductions would be a good start.

The group also is working to educate citizens about government and creating change. A solution, Ertl said, is getting more people motivated to join the discussion.

“Salem-Keizer has a huge spirit of volunteerism in the community,” Ertl said, adding that that alone can’t make up for stable funding.

Cara Roberts Murez can be reached at (503) 399-6750.