July 26, 2013

Portland panel delays $40M school bond vote until 2014

School officials and parents had urged the Finance Committee to set an earlier date in hopes of renovating three elementary schools.

By Dennis Hoey dhoey@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – Three city elementary schools will have to wait another year before residents can vote on building improvements that school administrators and parents say are desperately needed right now.

click image to enlarge

This March 2009 file photo shows Lyseth Elementary Schoo in Portland. Three city elementary schools, including Lyseth, will have to wait until June 2014 before before residents can vote on $40 million in building improvements that school administrators and parents say are desperately needed right now.

School board members, school administrators, parents and students urged the City Council's Finance Committee on Thursday night to set an early date for a public vote on a $39.9 million bond that would pay for the renovation and expansion of Lyseth, Presumpscot and Riverton elementary schools.

But a majority of committee members – three councilors were present for Thursday's vote – balked at holding a November referendum. The councilors voted instead to schedule the school bond referendum in June 2014.

"I am as big a supporter as anyone in this room to get this project done, but I am very anxious about doing this in steps," said Councilor Nicholas M. Mavodones Jr.

Mavodones was referring to the other piece of the school board's elementary school improvement plan, which assumes the state funding the $20.6 million replacement of Portland's Hall Elementary School. The school was damaged by fire earlier this year.

While state funding for that project seems fairly certain – no formal decision has been made yet -- the state has also indicated it might be able to provide $11.2 million to renovate Longfellow Elementary School in the state's current funding cycle.

If state funding comes through for one or both projects, Portland voters would have to approve those projects at another referendum in June.

Having residents vote twice on school-construction referendums in a span of a few months is asking too much of residents, Mavodones said.

The school department needs to focus on mounting a single campaign aimed at getting voter approval for all five school projects, he said. Doing that in June makes sense because by then the city should know whether Hall and Longfellow will get state funding, he said.

"The other concern I have is school referendum fatigue for our voters," said Councilor Jill Duson, who said she supports a June referendum.

Duson said she fully supports improving city schools but added, "I don't want as we approach this last hurdle to jump too fast and to fall down."

Duson said the full City Council, which consists of eight councilors and Mayor Michael Brennan, will not be able to override the Finance Committee's recommendation because it would take support from seven councilors to send the proposal to a November referendum.

Mavodones and Duson said they would not change their minds. And John Anton, who chairs the Finance Committee, indicated he would not support a November vote. Anton had to leave before Thursday's vote was taken.

"We still don't know if Hall will be funded. It gives me a great deal of pause. You (school officials) can't come back and ask us for $20 million for Hall. It's just not going to happen," Anton said of the possibility of the city being asked to fund the Hall School replacement project.

"Waiting until June is the best opportunity for the city to get the most work done," Duson said.

Only Councilor David Marshall said he would support a November referendum.

About 40 school officials, administrators, parents and students pleaded with the Finance Committee to hold a vote in November on the $39.9 million bond.

"This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the city of Portland," said Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk.

Caulk said the bond package would raise the annual property tax on a home valued at $200,000 by about $67.

Among the long list of school improvements that are planned would be replacing modular classrooms with permanent classrooms at Lyseth and Presumpscot schools, creating more secure entrances at all five schools, separating gym and cafeteria spaces at four schools, and making all five schools handicapped accessible.

All five school principals asked the Finance Committee to set November as the referendum date.

"I implore the council to get this out to referendum as quickly as possible," said Dawn Carrigan, Longfellow's principal.

School Board Chairman Jaimey Caron said that by holding a June referendum the council would be delaying the opening of the newly renovated schools by a year -- 2017 instead of 2016.

"Please get it out to voters in November," said Cheryl Dennis, whose children attend Lyseth. "It has got huge support from the parents and we can't wait. It's our children (who need these improvements)." 

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

dhoey@pressherald.com

 

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