Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling and the City Council have come to an agreement that breaks a stalemate and could lead to a historic vote in November to renovate as many as four elementary schools.

Offering voters the choice between two bond proposals is unprecedented in the city, Strimling said, but it may be the only way to bridge an impasse on the council that threatens to block any bond question from getting on the ballot. The council has been deadlocked over the issue for nearly two weeks.

“It’s not my first choice,” Strimling said in an interview. “I’d rather put out the one question. It is unprecedented for the city to put two bonds out with the tie breaker. I’m looking forward to the campaign to make the case.”

If the council approves the plan, voters will choose between a $64 million bond that would use local tax dollars to renovate four schools, and a $32 million bond to renovate two schools while seeking state funding for the others.

Strimling is one of the six members of the council who support asking taxpayers to borrow $64 million to fund renovations at Lyseth, Longfellow, Presumpscot and Reiche elementary schools.

Two weeks ago, the council voted 6-3 in support of the $64 million bond, but the proposal needs support from seven of the council’s nine members to appear on the ballot. Last week, the council voted to postpone the item until April 5. The council could vote on the compromise on April 24.


Councilors Nicholas Mavodones, Jill Duson and Belinda Ray have blocked the $64 million bond proposal, citing concerns about increasing the tax burden on residents. Mavodones said the $64 million bond would be the largest ever in Portland.

Instead, Mavodones and Duson are advocating for a $32 million bond to fix Lyseth and Presumpscot, while seeking state funding for Reiche and Longfellow, both of which narrowly missed the cut in the last round of funding. If state funding is denied, they said, they will support another bond in the future.

Ray has proposed a $25 million bond, but it has failed to gain traction.

Strimling and Mavodones said in a joint interview Friday that they have reached an agreement to put both questions to voters.

If both bonds received more than 50 percent of the vote, the bond with the most votes would be authorized. If neither won a majority, both would fail.

The $64 million bond would be listed first on the ballot, and the vote would occur in November, rather than June, as originally planned.


“It’s a compromise that I think is fair and reasonable so we can move forward,” Mavodones said. “This gives people a chance to vote and it provides options. I think it will serve the community best in the long run. Whichever proposal passes, passes.”

Emily Figdor, co-founder of Protect Our Neighborhood Schools, a group of parents advocating for the four-school bond, said she is happy that the $64 million bond likely will go to voters, but is upset that the smaller bond also will be on the ballot, since it’s supported by only two councilors.

“It’s so long overdue, so the opportunity to actually go to the ballot and decide whether we’re going to fix all four schools is an incredible opportunity, but cutting Reiche and Longfellow – the two neediest schools – out of the bond should not also be on the ballot,” Figdor said. “That being said, I’m confident we can win this.”

Duson also was pleased with the agreement. She first broached the idea of putting two questions on the ballot last month, after saying she couldn’t support the $64 million bond.

Procedurally, the council will have to vote on each bond separately. Each must get seven votes to move forward. And language would be added to each question on the ballot explaining how the winner would be chosen.

Duson and Mavodones said they will speak with the city attorney about ways to ensure that the council follows a process that puts both bonds on the ballot. That would prevent councilors from going back on their word to support the smaller bond after the full $64 million received enough support for the ballot.


“I trust my colleagues, but procedurally I would want to make sure things happen they way we agree they will happen,” Duson said.

Councilor Justin Costa said it’s important that voters get a chance to weigh in on the full $64 million bond. As a former school board member, Costa has been working on the school renovations for years.

Costa said he will likely support the two-bond agreement, even though he is worried about how the winner will be decided.

“With the conditions that some of my colleagues are insisting on, I think it’s a very real possibility that the result of a multiple-ballot referendum won’t represent the will of the voters,” he said. “That gives me pause. But I don’t think putting nothing out represents the will of the voters either. So I’m stuck.”

Costa said some supporters of the $64 million bond may also vote for the smaller bond as a way to ensure that some funding is approved. If that happens, their votes could effectively help the smaller bond prevail.

Since the council vote two weeks ago, the minority of councilors have come under fire from parents and progressive groups for obstructing residents’ ability to vote on the full bond. For example, Progressive Portland, a new nonprofit, has a launched a campaign asking people to oppose the re-election of any councilor who does not support the $64 million.


Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, who represents the West End, supports the $64 million bond and is concerned that the Mavodones-Duson proposal cuts out the Reiche school, which is in his district. He’s undecided about whether he will support the two-bond proposal.

Thibodeau lamented the tenor of political discourse surrounding the bond, with some supporters of the $64 million bond accusing the minority of councilors of not wanting to do anything to fix the schools.

“The real tragedy of this whole discussion and debate on the issue has been the gamesmanship and the seeming attack on councilors who think a different way,” he said. “While I’m very happy about the compromise, I think we’ve left a lot to be desired on the political discourse. I hope this will all change as we correctly focus on students.”

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, $2,700 over the life of the bond.

The tax impact of the $32 million bond would be roughly half of that, Strimling and Mavodones said.

Randy Billings can be reached at 791-6346 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @randybillings

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