Editorials from around Oregon

Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers:

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The Corvallis Gazette-Times, Oct. 9, on allowing taxpayer say in how money from Student Success Act should be used:

The agenda for the Thursday night meeting of the Corvallis School Board includes this pleasant topic: How should the district plan for how to spend its share of the extra money coming its way from the Student Success Act?

As you might recall, the Student Success Act, which was passed by this year's legislative session, establishes a corporate activity tax on certain Oregon businesses and funnels the money, estimated to be about $1 billion a year, into the state's K-12 public schools.

The act dedicates about half of its funding to a new Student Investment Account; funds from the account will be distributed through noncompetitive grants to the state's school districts and eligible charter schools. The Corvallis School District is expected to receive about $5 million annually beginning in the 2020-21 school year from the Student Investment Account, according to information prepared for Thursday's board meeting.

Similar discussions are going to be occurring at school districts throughout the state. It should make for a nice change of pace from the typical budget discussions at school districts (or, for that matter, at most any governmental unit in Oregon). Those discussions in recent years have tended to focus on the best ways to cut budgets, or which services can be eliminated to save money. (These discussions often also include proposals about how governments can raise more revenue; it's worth remembering that this money for schools comes from a tax which will be paid, to the largest possible extent, by the customers of those businesses subject to the tax. More on this point later.)

Regardless, it will be nice for board members and district officials to sit around a table and brainstorm ways to spend a few additional dollars.

But the conversation shouldn't end there.

In fact, House Bill 3427, the official name for the Student Success Act, includes requirements that districts solicit community comment on their plans. That sort of comment, in theory, could be handled by offering a few moments near the end of a board meeting for weary and confused members of the public to approach the board and mutter a few words about a plan that's choked in impenetrable educational jargon.

But that's not what legislators intended — and it's not how smart school districts will approach this process. The Corvallis School District, for example, hopes to include community forums, meetings with stakeholder groups, online surveys and something called "feedback loops," a phrase which veers perilously close to educational jargon.

Despite the feedback loops, this sounds like a good start. But the effort should go beyond that — school officials have an opportunity here to go beyond the usual suspects, those loyal citizens who make a point of attending as many meetings as they can. This is an opportunity to take this good news into the broader community and get a better sense of what those citizens expect from their schools. Chances seem pretty good that many of those expectations will fall into one of the broad categories identified in the act: reducing class size, providing a well-rounded education, adding instructional time and addressing health and safety concerns.

And citizens who become engaged in the process should feel free to ask questions, in particular these ones: What specific educational needs in the district will the money address? And, just as important, how will the district measure progress toward those goals — and how will district officials provide progress reports?

After all, even though the tax that funds these educational programs will be levied on businesses, it's the customers of those businesses that likely will get stuck with most of the tab. (Most taxpayers do get an 0.25 percentage point personal income tax to compensate, but still.) Those taxpayers deserve to have a say on where their money will be spent — and whether that investment is making a difference in their community's schools.

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The Medford Mail Tribune, Oct. 8, on continuing public records battle:

Two developments emerged in the public records arena last week. One would make the state's public records advocate independent from the governor's office — a necessary step. The other is a troubling report in The Oregonian indicating that Gov. Kate Brown's office is claiming exemptions to time limits on releasing public records that are supposed to apply to small local government offices.

Public Records Advocate Ginger McCall, the first person appointed to the newly created position, resigned in September, saying she was pressured by Brown's staff to push the governor's agenda on public records policy but not reveal who directed her to do that. She also said the governor's chief legal counsel told her she reported to him and she needed to clear potential legislation or policy proposals with the governor's office before releasing them. McCall will leave her position this month.

The Public Records Advisory Council, appointed by the governor and which the advocate chairs, has proposed legislation for the 2020 Legislature that would make it clear the advocate is independent of the governor's office. Under the proposal, the council would hire the advocate for a four-year term and could dismiss that person for cause. As it stands now, the council presents a list of candidates to the governor, who selects one and has the power to fire the advocate.

After McCall announced her resignation, Brown said she supported legislation to clarify the advocate's independence, but should not introduce it herself.

Such legislation should receive favorable consideration from lawmakers next year. The next records advocate should use that newly clarified independence to keep a close eye on the governor's office, because it appears Brown's administration is less devoted to transparency that she promised it would be.

Brown took office after Gov. John Kitzhaber resigned under the cloud of an influence-peddling scandal during which his office stonewalled multiple public records requests. Brown supported reforms of public records law that, among other things, set a 15-day deadline for agencies to release records or justify withholding them.

The law includes exemptions designed for small local governments, who lobbied lawmakers for exceptions because they didn't have the staff to meet the 15-day rule.

Now, according to a detailed report in The Oregonian, two of that newspaper's requests have languished for six weeks, and other news organizations are still waiting for responses to records requests after nearly three months.

Brown's office says it is dealing with an unusually high volume of requests, qualifying for an exemption that applies if complying would be "impracticable." The attorney general's guidelines for the new law, however, say agencies must justify any deviation from the 15-day deadline: "Public bodies with the resources to adequately staff its public records requests are expected to do so."

The governor has a staff of nearly 70, including six public affairs employees, but only one staffer — an attorney — handles nearly all records requests.

That's not transparency. It's foot-dragging.

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The Bend Bulletin, Oct. 7, on vaping ban regulations and enforcement:

Friday, Oct. 4, Gov. Kate Brown ordered a 180-day ban on the sale of flavored vaping products, effective immediately. Her action was expected: With two of the nation's 20 vaping deaths this year coming from Oregon, it makes sense to find out what the problem is before allowing flavored vaping products back on the market.

Two agencies, plus law enforcement, will be responsible for implementing and enforcing the ban. The Oregon Liquor Control Commission, which oversees marijuana regulation in the state, will meet this week and is expected to come up with a rule covering the temporary ban of vaping products containing THC, the main psychoactive compound in marijuana.

The Oregon Health Authority, meanwhile, is responsible for regulating retail sales of tobacco and non-THC vaping products. With the help of retired Oregon State Police officers, the state this year inspected some 1,100 retailers out of a total of about 3,200.

The agencies also are supposed to ask the Legislature to require that all ingredients in vaping products be disclosed to consumers. The OLCC already requires that additives to THC vaping products be certified for purity.

Both agencies will also beef up warnings about the problems with vaping, and OHA will adopt rules requiring providers to report cases of lung injuries linked to vaping. Too, the agencies are expected to develop proposals for the Legislature that would make the ban on flavored vaping products permanent and increase regulatory oversight of vaping products.

They're also expected to begin a statewide education and prevention campaign about the dangers of vaping, and that's a good thing. While vaping is legally limited to those 21 and older in Oregon (the same age that it becomes legal to use conventional tobacco and marijuana products) at least one study found that nearly a quarter of 11th graders in the state had used e-cigarettes, which are included in the ban. Other studies show that for teens, vaping is a predecessor to smoking.

Brown was right to ban the flavored products. But at least until we know what's been responsible for the illnesses and deaths, it makes no sense to permanently outlaw a legal product.