Editorial: Don’t strip debt authority from schools


Published Jan 22, 2013 at 04:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

Sisters resident Mike Morgan succeeded in teeing up an important issue: When should taxpayers get to vote on government debt?

If the courts had done what Morgan wanted, more decision-making power would be put directly in the hands of voters. But in this case, that would not necessarily be a good thing.

Morgan filed suit after the Sisters School District adopted an ordinance to use its credit for $2.1 million in capital improvements. The debt would be repaid out of its general fund. The school board’s action did not include voter approval.

Morgan argued that the district does not have the authority under Oregon law to secure any bond or debt without voter approval.

The Oregon Supreme Court didn’t answer that question in its recent decision against Morgan. The court affirmed the decision of other courts that Morgan didn’t have standing in the case, because he didn’t suffer any real harm.

Morgan’s issue is still out there. He told The Bulletin that he would like to work with others to fight it.

But school boards already make critical decisions almost every month that affect the financial and educational future of their districts. They make decisions on employee compensation and benefits. They make decisions on curriculum and textbooks. That’s why voters elect them — to make those choices.

School boards also sometimes decide that they should go to voters for improvements, such as a new school to be financed with additional property taxes. They sometimes decide to incur debt without a vote and use money in the general fund to pay it.

Healthy skepticism about the government debt is useful. But without clear evidence that school boards are abusing their ability to incur debt without a vote of the people, the ability should not be stripped from them.