The Sunday Oregonian, Nov. 24, 1996, p. D4

Priorities in prison

Wilsonville could have schools squeezed by a prison - just like Oregon's voters ordered

It's puzzling.

How come, in a state where people regularly vote for prisons and against schools, nobody wants to live near a prison, and everybody wants to live near a school?

In Wilsonville, objections to siting a new prison in the city, one strong complaint is that the proposed prison site is right next to a school, and that two other proposed schools would have to be located somplace else. Given the recent voting record of Oregon, and of Clackamas County, the solution to that should be obvious:

Close the school.

That would not only be in line with recently expressed voter priorities, but would guarantee - even more than Measure 47 - a cut in local property assessments.

Somehow, people tend to like having schools around. They name their neighborhoods after schools, like to have their houses located near them and mention them prominently in their real estate ads.

You hardly ever see a listing for "cute and cozy three-bedroom with garage, easy walking distance of well-maintained medium-security penitentiary. Sleep soundly close to many armed guards."

But steadily, over the last six years, Oregon has voted to cut back on its investment in schools and increase its investment in prisons. At some point, people get to live with their decisions.

And in some cases, they get to live next door to their decisions.

Wilsonville's situation, or course, would draw sympathy from anyone, and there might well be a better location - although the residents there won't be pleased about their new neighbor, either. Stone walls may not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage, but hardly anybody thinks they make great local landmarks.

Still, they reflect the clear priority decisions of Oregon voters. At last Sunday's hearing in Wilsonville, one local resident complained, "This is about the state forcing its will on you, the citizens of Oregon." But the decisions that led to siting seven new prisons came directly from the citizens of Oregon against the advice of most of state government.

People vote for huge prison expansions, and then are stunned when a new prison is proposed nearby. They vote for substantial rollbacks in taxes that largely pay for education, and then insist that they had no idea that cuts would affect schools.

Oregon is becoming a state where people vote for something, and then are surprised and resentful when they get it.

And from the same people's priority setting, it's becoming a place where schoolchildren don't get it - even if they're not in the convict-constricted schools of Wilsonville. The kids involved in the prison-siting dispute aren't the first local students to be squeezed by Oregon public policy; over the last five years, student-teacher ratios in the West Linn-Wilsonville school district have risen by more than 10 percent.

A number of Oregon school districts, including Portland, were facing a new round of cuts next year before Measure 47 ever appeared. If the prison-siting decisions could just be stalled for a year or so, there might be some evacuated school buildings on the market.

Now, Oregon districts are heading into court to fight over the money available - following the example of the state's colleges and universities, who have turned the budget crunch into a fight among themselves.

It's not a promising example. Based on voter decisions, Oregon is rapidly following the path of California, which now spends more state money on prisons than on higher education. Yet parts of the state that firmly resist the local arrival of a prison also talk eagerly about getting (or keeping) a college or upgrading the local college to a university or increasing local college access.

Higher education is considered a priority for the local economy, an opportunity for local kids, a boost to the local quality of life. On the other hand, nobody ever argues that a prison would be a convenience for the families of local felons.

Once again, what Oregonians are ready to invest in seems to be different from what they want to live with. Eventually, the contradiction will catch up with you - and sometimes, it will move in across the street.

This month, the prospect of Wilsonville getting schools squeezed to make way for a prison provides the whole state of Oregon with a mid-Valley metaphor:

You get what you're willing to pay for.

And sometimes, sooner than you expect.



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