Portland city councilors are considering putting multiple bond questions about renovating some of its elementary schools on the ballot this year.
For more than a year, councilors and school board members have been evaluating a proposed $64 million bond to renovate four elementary schools without state funding. Although that bond plan has been recommended by a special panel and the school board, it does not yet appear to have the seven votes necessary to pass the nine-member council, which includes the mayor.
City Councilor Jill Duson joined councilors Belinda Ray and Nicholas Mavodones last week in expressing concern about giving up state funding and requiring local taxpayers to shoulder the costs. Until then, Duson was considered the pivotal vote on the council.
Now Ray says she’ll support efforts to put a $64 million bond on the ballot, but only if two competing bond measures are also put to a public vote.
“There’s no reason to limit the voters’ options,” said Ray, who plans to offer a $24 million proposal to primarily renovate one school. “I think it would be wrong to offer them only one choice.”
Duson also supports the multi-bond approach, although she couldn’t be reached Thursday to discuss whether she would vote against the $64 million bond if the council doesn’t agree to put other bond questions on the ballot.
The multi-bond approach is being met with skepticism by parents who have been advocating for a four-school bond for nearly two years, as well as Mayor Ethan Strimling and other councilors.
So far, six councilors have expressed support for the $64 million proposal, which would fully renovate Reiche, Lyseth, Longfellow and Presumpscot elementary schools. Some of the renovations would fix acoustic issues at Reiche that interfere with student learning, and would eliminate portable classrooms at Presumpscot.
“For me what’s most important is the $64 million bond for all four schools – I think that’s what the city wants,” said Strimling, who did not directly answer a question about whether he’d support a multiple bond proposal as a means of getting it done.
“I think three options on a ballot is too confusing,” said Councilor David Brenerman, whose district includes two of the schools that would be renovated under the full bond. “Ultimately, there should be a vote on the four schools. If they are not seven votes, then we have to think about whether there’s a rational option or whether we don’t do anything this year.”
The City Council is scheduled to hold a public hearing and potentially vote Monday night on putting the $64 million bond on the ballot.
Borrowed in stages over the next six years, the bond would result in an additional $92 million in debt after interest. Property taxes are projected to increase by 3.1 percent over a 26-year period, adding an average of $104 a year to the tax bill on a $240,000 home, or $2,700 over the life of the bond.
HOLDING OUT HOPE FOR STATE FUNDS
Ray, Duson and Mavodones have expressed opposition to asking Portland taxpayers to shoulder the costs of renovating four elementary schools. They believe that two of the schools – Reiche and Longfellow – have a good chance of receiving state funding. But advocates for the full bond are quick to point out that those schools have been turned down by the state four times.
Duson and Mavodones are advocating a so-called “2+2” option that would put a $32 million bond before voters this year to renovate Lyseth and Presumpscot. That would preserve the chance of receiving state funding for Reiche and Longfellow, which barely missed the cutoff during the last selection period. If one, or neither, of those schools is chosen for state funding by the fall of 2018, Duson supports asking voters for another bond. She says all four schools would still be renovated under the same timetable.
Duson said she has asked city staff to draft an amendment that would effectively put three bonds out to voters. That may lead to at least a two-week delay for final council action, because the other bond proposals may need to be reposted to the public and undergo two readings by the council.
The amendment also could push the bond proposal to the November ballot, when there’s traditionally higher voter turnout, rather than the June ballot, as advocates originally hoped.
The city would not be able to offer residents a multiple-choice question or ranked-choice voting for the bond questions, said James Saffian, an attorney who contracted with the city to handle its bonding. In a March 8 email to city staff, Saffian said the city would have to put three separate bond questions to residents, who would have to vote up or down on each one.
A bond would need to receive at least 50 percent of the vote to be approved, he said. If more than one bond proposal receives a majority vote, then the city would move forward with the bond proposal that received the most votes, Saffian said, noting the possibility for voter confusion.
THIRD OPTION NARROWS SCOPE
This week, Ray unveiled her own $24 million bond proposal, saying it addresses the most pressing needs outlined in a districtwide assessment of school facilities that revealed over $320 million in long-term needs. She is concerned that approving a $64 million bond will force the school district to reduce staffing, which already is being proposed as part of next year’s budget.
Her proposal would result in a 6.5 percent tax increase on the education portion of property tax bills, which is about half of the overall total.
“I would like to spend the money to improve schools and to address the most pressing needs in a responsible manner that takes advantage of the most state funding as possible,” Ray said.
Ray’s bond would fund $16.3 million in renovations to the Lyseth school, which would eliminate the use of portable classrooms, plus an additional $1.8 million to improve parking and drainage issues in the bus loop and parking lot. Her proposal focuses on Lyseth, she said, because it is least likely to get state funding.
There is also room in Lyman Moore Middle School, which is located on the same campus, to house fifth-graders during construction at Lyseth.
PARENT LEADER WANTS FULL BOND
Ray’s plan would add four new classrooms at the Ocean Avenue Elementary School, which was completed in 2011 using state funds. Those classrooms could hold students from the Reiche school once renovations got underway there, she said. Another $2.4 million would be used to finish work on Reiche’s building entrance.
Additional funds would be used to add fire alarms to Lyman Moore, King Middle School and Deering High School, some of which would also get sprinklers.
Emily Figdor, co-founder of Protect Our Neighborhood Schools, a group of parents advocating for the full $64 million bond, is disappointed by Ray’s late-in-the-process proposal, which has not been vetted. She also noted that the Duson-Mavodones proposal already has been considered and shot down by a special committee that studied the school issue in depth before recommending the $64 million bond.
Figdor said that after 23 years of debating school construction and being repeatedly denied state funding, it is time for the council to take action. She called on the council to stop “kicking the can down the road.”
“It seems to me that the council should do their job,” she said. “There’s quite a lot of consensus on the council that we should move forward with the ($64 million) bond and get all four schools done.”
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: