While few would argue that Portland’s school facilities are in need of repair, a debate is ongoing about how best to pay for the upgrades and whether a multimillion dollar bond to rebuild four elementary schools will address the district’s most urgent needs.
Support is building to ask Portland taxpayers to borrow $61 million to rebuild Presumpscot, Reiche, Lyseth and Longfellow elementary schools, which have not seen major investments since they were built about 45 to 65 years ago. In addition to old mechanical systems and asbestos, students attend classes in modular buildings and classrooms without walls and receive non-classroom instruction in hallways and converted closet spaces.
City officials estimate that the bond would increase property taxes by 3 percent over the next 20 years, costing the owner of a $225,000 house nearly $2,500.
Portland’s School Facilities Ad Hoc Committee will hold a public hearing on the bond Thursday from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. in council chambers at City Hall. Mayor Ethan Strimling, who co-chairs the committee, says the group will likely vote on whether to recommend the bond to the City Council’s Finance Committee, which would forward a recommendation to the full council about whether the funding request should be put to voters.
Parents have organized in their effort to win passage of the bond. Emily Figdor, co-founder of Protect Our Neighborhood Schools and parent of a Reiche school student, said she expects a strong turnout in support for the borrowing plan, which has the support of the Portland Board of Education and several councilors.
“I think people are frustrated to hear how long this has taken,” said Figdor, noting that upgrades have been studied and discussed for over 20 years. “Now is the time, after nearly a quarter of a century, to finally focus on the elementary schools.”
SMARTER WAYS TO PAY?
Some city officials, including City Manager Jon Jennings and City Councilor Belinda Ray, believe there are smarter ways to pay for the upgrades and that there are more pressing needs in the school district and in the city as a whole.
“We are heading into some very expensive years,” Ray said. “We have to spend every penny wisely.”
Ray said in an Op-Ed last week in the Press Herald that the proposed bond would lead to a 30 percent increase in property taxes if the city does not make significant budget cuts, continues to fund its annual capital borrowing program and addresses other urgent needs outlined in a recent district-wide assessment of the school faculties.
Ray acknowledged that only 3 percent of that increase could be attributed to the school bond, while the bulk of that projected tax increase was for other city needs.
Fidgor said Ray’s assertion is “absurd,” calling it a deliberate attempt to frighten taxpayers. However, Deputy City Manager Anita LaChance said Ray was not wrong to put the school bond in context of other budget issues, including a long list of needs in both city and school buildings.
“A lot of numbers have been thrown out there and none of them are entirely wrong,” said LaChance, who has been fine-tuning cost estimates for the bond. “It all depends on how you look at it…. You have to look at the big picture the same way you would in your personal finances.”
That big picture is the collective capital needs of the city, including $321 million in upgrades and repairs to the city’s 17 school faculties over the next 20 years. A draft plan commissioned by the school district calls for $130 million in repairs to the city’s three high schools, nearly $113 million in repairs to nine elementary schools and more than $62 million to its three middle schools.
Proponents, such as Protect Our Neighborhood Schools and Progressive Portland, a separate group run by Figdor’s husband, Steven Biel, argue that a 3 percent tax increase, which would add about 63 cents to the city’s current tax rate of $21.11 per $1,000 of assessed property value, is a small price to pay to ensure that all of Portland elementary school students have a 21st-century learning environment.
“That works out to 41 cents a day, which is less than a cup of coffee,” Figdor said.
STRIMLING SUPPORTS BOND
Strimling and the Portland Board of Education agree. Strimling said in his State of the City address last week that putting a $70 million bond before voters was his top priority.
But Ray said in an interview that the bond would not address the most pressing needs in the school district. And since the debt would be repaid through the school budget, she’s concerned that teachers would need to be laid off in future budgets.
Ray pointed to a recent district-assessment of school facilities, which outlined $321 million worth of projects that needed to done over the next 20 years, identified $1.5 million in immediate needs, including upgrades to the sanitary and ventilation system at Casco Bay and Portland Arts and Technology high schools on Allen Avenue. Immediate needs at the city’s nine elementary schools totaled $370,000 in cost, including only $141,000 for urgent project at the four schools that would be rebuilt.
Ray, Jennings and City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones believe the city should continue to pursue state funding for five of its schools, including Reiche and Longfellow elementary schools, rather than move forward using only local funds by issuing a municipal bond. That package of upgrades to five schools just missed the cut off during the last cycle of state funding. Applications for the next round of funding are due in April, and Ray said the state is expected to release its list in the summer of 2018.
“To bond these schools with excellent prospects for state funding without even trying I think is shortsighted,” Ray said.
State funds paid for the East End Community School, Ocean Avenue Elementary School Hall Elementary School projects.
Mavodones previously suggested that the city issue a bond to repair two schools, while seeking state funding for the remaining ones. LaChance, the deputy city manager, said the councilor has not contacted her with any details.
City Councilor Justin Costa, who previously served as the school board’s finance chairman, said he supports the $61 million bond to renovate the four elementary schools. He believes the debate should be centered solely on the cost of the bond, without bringing other needs into the picture.
Costa said the elementary school projects have been a longstanding priority for the school district and the state has already turned down funding requests on three occasions. He believes the city should fund the elementary school projects now, before interest rates and construction costs increase. That would allow the city to pursue state funding for the high schools, when the city retires a costly pension obligation bond in 10 years, he said.
“This is the single most studied and prepared-for initiative that I have ever seen in government,” Costa said of the elementary proposal.
“We have a project that we know what it’s going to look like. Interest rates and construction costs are only going to go up, so this is the time to move it.”
The challenges at each school are detailed in the 2013 Buildings for Our Future report. The ad hoc committee has been reviewing that document and visiting the schools in their effort to finalize plans to upgrade the four schools. The group originally looked at a $70 million bond, but has since whittled down that amount to about $61 million.
Among the issues that need to be addressed:
– Reiche school’s open concept makes it difficult for students hear their teachers and concentrate on their work;
– Portable classrooms at Lyseth and Presumpscot, which force students to bundle-up and walk to the main school building to use the bathroom;
– Longfellow needs an elevator to address ADA requirements and exterior brick work needs to be repaired;
– All of the schools have old mechanical systems that need to be upgraded and asbestos that needs to be removed.