Portland is embroiled in a heated debate over elementary school renovations. In November, voters will be asked whether to spend $32 million to rebuild two schools, or whether to spend $64 million to rebuild four schools.

At the center of the debate is Progressive Portland, a group of activists with a lot of political clout. The group has promised to raise $50,000 for the campaign for the four-school bond. Progressive Portland is using the issue as a litmus test for local candidates, and it has pledged to work to defeat at least one official who supports the two-school bond.

I am concerned about a divisive campaign that pits neighbor against neighbor. I fear that it will distract attention from far bigger challenges facing the Portland Public Schools.

Consider a little historical perspective. Portland’s enrollment in kindergarten through 12th grade peaked in 1969. That year, 14,188 students attended city schools, according to the district’s website.

Since then, enrollment has plummeted to less than half of that amount. Last year, about 6,700 students attended the district’s K-12 schools.

Portland has built two elementary schools and renovated a third during the past 11 years. A fourth elementary school, Hall, now is under construction. Given the decline in enrollment, why do we need four more mainland elementary schools, in addition to the two schools serving island children?

I think that question has been squelched because the school board doesn’t have the courage to redistrict students.

Closing schools is always controversial. As a newspaper reporter in another state, I covered a school closing that tore a community apart. I learned an important lesson from talking to students, parents, public officials and other residents involved with that issue. While adults get all worked up about school closings, kids adjust just fine.

When Portland school board candidates seek my vote, I want to hear that they have the guts to tackle redistricting. That could allow us to eliminate one of the four new schools.

During the past three decades, the city school system has undergone a demographic transformation every bit as dramatic as the decline in enrollment. What was once a district made up primarily of children from middle-class homes is now primarily a student body living in poverty. Last year, 55 percent of the children in the Portland Public Schools qualified for free or reduced-price lunch because of low family incomes.

Educational research shows that students benefit from attending schools with a mix of incomes. Moreover, the future health of our city depends on keeping and expanding its middle class. Otherwise, we are at risk of becoming an economically polarized city such as San Francisco, with a lot of wealthy people and a large homeless population.

To keep the middle class in Portland, we have to rein in property taxes. That means ensuring that every dollar spent on the Portland Public Schools is needed.

When plans were underway for the new Hall building, the Maine Department of Education urged the school board to make it large enough to serve the Longfellow district as well. The board chose not to do that.

Now, instead of continuing to seek state funding to rebuild Longfellow and Reiche schools, local taxpayers are being asked to pay all of the costs.

Those who support the $64 million bond must justify why it is necessary to rebuild all four schools. They also should justify why they are asking Portland taxpayers to cover costs that might be paid by accessing state construction funds.

The $64 million bond would be the largest in city history, according to City Councilor Nick Mavodones. The average homeowner would pay an extra $104 per year in taxes for 26 years, or a total of about $2,700.

The leaders of Progressive Portland have downplayed the burden that will create for city taxpayers. Some of my friends and neighbors tell me a different story. Those living on fixed incomes say it will make a real dent in their budgets.

I fear that if the $64 million elementary bond passes, taxpayers could refuse to pony up for future increases in school operating expenses. While students need decent facilities, they also need fairly paid teachers, well maintained buildings and school supplies. My biggest fear is that higher taxes will push more middle-class people out of the city, exacerbating income inequality in Portland.

This is a crucial decision for the city. We need officials who will show courage in leading us forward.

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