Portland councilors want to know how borrowing $70 million to rebuild four elementary schools will affect budgets.

Portland City Councilors will be deliberate, thorough and well-prepared before they ask voters to approve a bond issue of more than $70 million to rebuild Presumpscot, Longfellow, Lyseth and Reiche elementary schools.

That much became clear during a three-hour meeting Monday night when Portland school officials lobbied the City Council to authorize borrowing to fund the renovation of the four elementary schools.

Mayor Ethan Strimling said it is unlikely that an ad hoc committee created to study the issue will be able to finish its review of the “Buildings for Our Future Initiative” in time to put the question on the November ballot.

The council would have to approve the bond by its first meeting in September for it to go to a vote Nov. 8.

“It makes much more sense that we do this right than we do it fast,” Strimling said after the meeting. “The committee is going to be asking a lot of hard questions. In order to get this right, we have to take our time.”

Councilors said they will need more information about how the borrowing would affect the city and school budgets, and Portland’s property tax rate, before they can put it out to referendum. Seven of the nine councilors’ votes would be needed to authorize the referendum.

Councilors said they want to know if it might be possible to seek funding from the state to renovate one of the schools, or whether it would be feasible to expand the Ocean Avenue Elementary School to accommodate some of the students from the four schools.

The first meeting of the School Facilities Ad Hoc Committee, which is made up of four school board members, three city councilors and Strimling, will be held July 25 at 5 p.m. in Portland City Hall. Though no public comment was allowed at the workshop Monday night, the public will be invited to offer opinions next week.

In June, the school board voted to request that the City Council act on the $70.5 million bond by sending it to Portland voters in November. After receiving the board’s request, the council voted July 6 to create the ad hoc committee.

The expected delay in getting the question before voters did not deter school advocates from lobbying the council Monday.

“Over the past 22 years, elementary school deficiencies have continued to plague us,” Board of Education Chairwoman Marnie Morrione told the council. “And they can no longer wait.”

Morrione said the four targeted schools are in various states of disrepair, creating conditions that affect safety and students’ learning. Several schools do not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and the buildings are not secure from intruders.

“Let’s be bold and unite for the greater good of this generation and future generations,” Morrione said.

Newly appointed Superintendent Xavier Botana said his staff doesn’t let building deficiencies get in the way of teaching.

“Where kids learn matters, and facilities are very important,” Botana said. “In spite of our buildings’ shortcomings, our staff has made do with what they have. But that doesn’t mean it’s OK.”

Councilor Nicholas Mavodones Jr. said he would like more precise data on how the four-school project would affect the city and school budgets as well as property taxes.

“It is very important that we have some clarity on the budget implications of this,” Mavodones said. “I don’t want to end up in a place where we are laying off professionals in order to pay off debt service.”

Councilor Jon Hinck asked the school department to provide the council with a list of other long-range projects and the potential costs.

“We absolutely need to have that information before we can make a final decision,” Hinck said.

Councilor Belinda Ray suggested that the city explore the possibility of getting state aid to rebuild at least one of the four schools to ease the financial burden on Portland taxpayers.

Strimling said borrowing $70 million over a five-year period would mean that the owners of a home valued at $200,000 would see their annual property tax bill increase by about $35 a year.

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

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