It’s no secret that I’m a strong advocate for giving Portland voters a voice this June on a $64 million education bond in order to ensure equality for Portland’s elementary school students.
Our young learners currently face an unfortunate reality. Students at Lyseth are forced to attend classes in hallways. Presumpscot kids must put on their snow boots to get to the bathroom from the trailer they call a classroom.
Six-year-olds at Reiche have to wear headphones to drown out the noise so they can read. A Deering Center third-grader who uses a wheelchair has to be transferred to a school across town because he can’t take classes on the second floor of Longfellow with his classmates.
These are inequities that none of us find acceptable.
Thankfully, for the first time in 25 years, the council is poised to vote to send a transformative bond to Portland voters that would finally guarantee that a child’s address will not dictate his or her educational experience.
Sadly, there’s still talk about cutting the two neediest schools from the bond, Longfellow and Reiche, in the hope that the state will fund them instead. This option was brought up months ago and was rejected 7-1 after careful consideration by a select committee of the council and school board.
The argument is enticing.
They say, “These two schools were close to getting funded on the last state list, so we should have a good chance of getting funded next time. Since we won’t be able to build all four schools at once, why not simply wait a few years and save local taxpayers money?”
Honestly, who wouldn’t want the state to pick up the tab, especially if the schools can be improved on the same timeline? Why would we turn down a win-win?
Except, as with most arguments that appear too good to be true, this one is too.
The fact is the state has already rejected these two schools four times (once through formal appeal) and little has changed in the state scoring to increase our chances (the state website spells it out this way: “Unless there have been significant changes aligned with the scoring system within a building, repeat applications typically fall within similar scoring ranges.).
Perhaps most importantly, cutting our neediest two schools from the bond could delay their rehabilitation by years – and could jeopardize their getting fixed at all.
If we don’t act now, there is no way to guarantee a future council would step up and do so. By the time we know whether the state would fund these schools (probably two years), six current councilors will have been up for re-election.
Turnover, a change of heart or different priorities could jeopardize a future bond. Moreover, the careful consideration many of us have given the issue this time around has taken over a year. As scenarios change, that analysis will need to be updated, taking time and further delaying a future decision while our kids and our schools suffer.
Finally, the oft-repeated claim that fixing two schools instead of four will equal significant taxpayer savings is simply untrue.
The reality is that a four-school bond would cost an average homeowner in Portland $8.67 per month. If we opt for a two-school bond and the state reverses course by funding one of them (it has never funded more than one per cycle) and we go back and fund the other locally, we would be saving taxpayers a grand total of around $2 per month.
The wishful thinking of a state-funded solution that cuts two schools is a gamble for our children and our city’s future that I am simply unwilling to take – especially if the reward is simply to save $2 a month.
A far better way to utilize the state process is to pursue state funding for Casco Bay/PATHS and Portland High School. These are large facilities where our capital needs assessment shows we have a good chance at securing state dollars.
Funding our elementary schools locally means we won’t be competing against ourselves at the state level for these other needy projects.
But regardless of what any of us might personally feel, it is time to finally give the voters in Portland their say on this four-school, $64 million bond.
I believe they will overwhelmingly vote in support of rebuilding these elementary schools, because ensuring equality for our kids is a value all of us embrace, and the alternative is no longer an option.