Touchdowns vs. Taxes

Tax Aversion, Budget Crisis Threaten School Sports in Burns, Ore.

Football Team

hide captionBurns Hilanders football coach Terry Graham talks with the team's seniors at this fall's homecoming game.

Ruthie Miller
Fundraising Sign

hide captionSave Our District Activities (SODA) is the group raising money in Burns to save high school sports. This sign charts the group's progress.

Nellie Franklin

In Burns, Ore. — population 3,000 — high school sports are an obsession. Tune to local radio station KZZR and you're likely to hear a broadcast of high school football, wrestling or volleyball. But as NPR's Howard Berkes reports, Oregon's budget crisis and local anti-tax sentiment threaten Burns' school sports programs.

School budget woes can be traced, in part, to a sawmill that closed a decade ago, depriving the area of more than $1 million a year in federal payments for timber logged from nearby national forests. At the same time, Oregonians voted to limit local property taxes, shifting most of the school-funding burden to the state income tax. During the booming economy of the '90s, this arrangement worked well. But as tough times set in, funding from the state was drastically reduced. In response, Burns was forced to shorten the school day and school year, lay off teachers and staff — and slash sports from the school budget.

Local residents have rallied in defense of the sports program, with bake sales, radio auctions, benefit dinners, raffles and fundraising appeals to high school alumni. The efforts raised more than $170,000, enough to save fall and winter sports this school year. Another $40,000 is needed for spring sports, so the fundraising effort continues.

But supporters doubt they can tap the same wells again next year. Local unemployment is high, incomes are low, and the population is aging. A proposal to fund sports through a temporary local hike in income taxes was voted down by a two-to-one margin. Other tax-based initiatives to save school sports are likely to meet the same fate. Voters in Burns seem to hate taxes as much as they love high school sports. That has some Burns parents threatening to move their families to areas where school sports are still an option.

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