A $64 million plan to renovate elementary schools may not go to Portland voters after all.
The proposal calls for the city to borrow $64 million to renovate four elementary schools, essentially giving up any hope of receiving state funding to help cover the costs. But a pivotal city councilor said Friday that she cannot justify forgoing potential state funding and forcing taxpayers to shoulder the burden.
Councilor Jill Duson said she is committed to fixing the four schools: Presumpscot, Longfellow, Reiche and Lyseth. But she is working on a proposal with Councilor Nicholas Mavodones to pass a smaller bond to renovate two of the schools. If the state refuses to help pay for renovations at the other two schools, a local bond could be put to voters at a later date, she said.
“It’s the same four schools and the same time frame (for renovations). It’s just a different way of financing it,” Duson said. “I’ve continued to have conversations, but at this point I am pretty much convinced that the right way to go is this two-plus-two approach.”
Duson is widely seen as the deciding vote on whether to seek voter approval of the project, which was recently increased from $61 million to $64 million.
That’s because “no” votes from three of the nine councilors would block the project from going on the ballot, and Mavodones and Councilor Belinda Ray already had expressed opposition to that amount.
Duson’s statements indicating her opposition come as advocates are ramping up their campaign to get council and voter support for the full $64 million project, including at a news conference Friday to highlight support in the business community.
Duson and Mavodones hope their plan could yield some state funding that the city could not get if they move forward with all schools immediately. Others are less optimistic. While Reiche and Longfellow schools have barely missed the cut in previous state funding cycles, Mayor Ethan Strimling said that does not guarantee they will be funded in future cycles. He believes any effort to strip them from the initial bond project will lead to delays.
“I just don’t have any faith the state will fund these schools,” Strimling said.
Duson said she and Mavodones, whose proposal for a $32 million bond for two schools was shot down by a school facilities committee, were still working on the details of their proposal, which would be released in the coming days. The City Council will hold a public hearing and potentially vote on the school bond on March 20.
On Monday night, Ray said that she also is working on an alternative proposal that would preserve the city’s ability to seek state funding for eligible schools while making the most pressing upgrades at the schools. Details of her proposal were not available Friday.
Applications for the next round of state funding are due April 14 and the state’s priority list would be finalized by the summer of 2018, according to the State Department of Education.
Strimling doesn’t believe there is much support on the council to fund improvements only at two schools. Six of the nine councilors have publicly stated their support for the full bond, meaning it has the best chance to pass.
Also, he noted that a recent facilities assessment determined that city’s best chance to receive state funding for construction was for new Casco Bay and Portland Arts and Technology high schools in one building. That assessment also determined that Reiche and Longefellow had the second- and third-best chances, respectively, followed by Portland High School and Lyseth.
“The state has already paid for three of our elementary schools, I don’t know they’re going to pay for all eight of them” on the mainland, Strimling said, noting the state has turned down funding for the schools three times already.
Protect Our Neighborhood Schools, a group of parents led by West End resident and former Washington, D.C., lobbyist Emily Figdor, announced the support of more than 100 of local businesses at a news conference Friday.
Another advocacy group, co-founded by Figdor’s husband, Steven Biel, who also has experience running national campaigns, is calling on supporters of his nonprofit group, Progressive Portland, to canvass neighborhoods this weekend to drum up support for the full bond.
The group also put out a statement Friday saying Duson supports “cutting two schools out of Portland’s bond to repair our most rundown elementary schools.”
Duson pushed back on that characterization of her remarks made at a community meeting at a coffee shop Sunday. “To frame my argument as cutting two schools out of the mix is completely in accurate,” she said.
“What I said at the meeting was I was leaning towards a two-plus-two option, which adds up to four no matter how you do the math.”
The $64 million would be borrowed over six years, resulting in an additional $92 million in debt after interest. The bond would increase taxes by 3.1 percent over a 26-year period. That would increase taxes by an average of $104 a year on a $240,000 home, or $2,700 over the life of the bond.
With the school district asking for a 6.5 percent property tax increase in next year’s budget, which could increase taxes by about $167 on a home valued at $250,000 before the municipal budget is accounted for, Duson said she is worried about spreading taxpayers too thin with a $64 million bond and wants councilors to consider all of their options to achieve the same goal of renovating the four schools.
“This all stacks up for the taxpayers,” she said. “It all impacts our ability to be an affordable city. We all are trying to get to a place where Portland is a city that’s affordable for everybody.”
Randy Billings can be reached at 791-6346 or at: