Portland voters face dueling elementary school renovation bond measures on the Nov. 7 ballot, one for a four-school $64 million bond backed by a majority of the school board and City Council, and the other a two-school $32 million bond supported by people who want to wait and see if the state will pay to replace two of the elementary schools.

“Voters more than anything think it’s not fair to fix some schools and not others,” said Emily Figdor, a Reiche parent who is leading the effort to pass the four-school bond. “We have got to get this done.”

Voters will be able to vote “yes” or “no” on either – or both – of the bond questions in November. A bond must be approved by a majority in order to be authorized. If both win a majority, then the one with the most “yes” votes is approved.

“We know that we need to fix our schools now,” said Justin Alfond, a Reiche parent and former Maine Senate president who is backing the smaller bond, which is Question 4 on the ballot. It would use local funding to renovate two elementary schools – Presumpscot and Lyseth – and wait to find out if the state will pay to replace Longfellow and Reiche.

The four schools have not had significant investments since they were built 40 to 60 years ago. The schools have old mechanical systems and asbestos. Students attend classes in modular buildings and classrooms without walls, and receive non-classroom instruction in hallways and converted closet spaces.

Among the chief concerns are practical fixes, such as installing functional heating and windows that open, eliminating trailers for classrooms and easing severe overcrowding. At one school, the social worker is in a windowless closet. At Lyseth, the gym is also used as a cafeteria and auditorium, but it’s so small the entire student body can’t convene there without being in violation of fire codes.

The school board has raised the issue of renovating the schools for more than two decades.

The renovation effort became politicized quickly as parents launched a well-coordinated campaign to attend meetings, speak during public comment periods and attend school tours, keeping pressure on the school board, then the City Council, to support a single bond to renovate all four schools. But the alternate plan to fund two schools emerged in March, when city councilors Nicholas Mavodones, Jill Duson and Belinda Ray announced support for a smaller bond to also appear on the ballot.

Lyseth Elementary School (Staff file photo by John Patriquin)

The parents group’s campaign, Protect Our Neighborhood Schools, has been canvassing neighborhoods on weekends, running a social media campaign and putting up lawn signs around town. They largely campaigned without any official opposition until the last two weeks, when Dory Waxman, a former city councilor, and Alfond launched the Better Schools, Better Deal campaign for the two-school bond option.

Waxman said the smaller bond is the more “sustainable” choice. “My kids can’t afford to live in Portland,” she said.

City officials estimate that the four-school $64 million bond – which would be $91 million with interest – would increase property taxes by 3 percent over a 26-year period. That is expected to cost the owner of a $225,000 house an average of $104 a year, or $2,700 over the life of the bond, said Deputy City Manager Anita LaChance.

The two-school, $32 million bond – $45 million with interest – would increase property taxes by 1.5 percent over a 22-year period, adding an average of $59 a year to the tax bill, or $1,300 over the life of the bond, LaChance said.

Waxman and Alfond said they would immediately support a second bond to cover the next two schools if the state’s list doesn’t give priority to Longfellow and Reiche. The proposed priority list, the first look at the state’s thinking, will be released in the spring of 2018 and the final priority list will be released in August 2018.

“Absolutely. That’s a no-brainer,” said Alfond, as Waxman nodded. “If any school is left behind, that’s just unconscionable.”

Presumpscot Elementary School (Staff file photo by John Ewing)

Alfond dismissed concerns raised by the parents group that if the bond is split into two votes, there’s a chance Portland voters will be less likely to pass a second school bond so soon after the first one.

“When was the last time Portland voted against a school anything – a bond? A budget? Never,” Alfond said. But he said it made sense to wait and see what the state decides to fund. “I don’t see how we can close the door on that opportunity,” he said.

The state, which provides construction funds for the neediest schools, closed the most recent funding cycle in September 2016, just as Reiche and Longfellow had moved up to Nos. 2 and 3 on the list of projects to be funded. Typically, no more than about a dozen schools receive money in any one funding cycle.

The state has provided funding for three new elementary schools in Portland in recent years. East End Community School was built in 2006, for $11.1 million, and Ocean Avenue Elementary School was built in 2011, for $14.4 million. In April, Portland voters approved a plan to pay for a new Hall Elementary School. The state will pay for almost all of the $29.7 million project, with Portland taxpayers picking up $1.4 million for specific upgrades such as a larger gym that can serve as a community center.

City leaders, including Mayor Ethan Strimling, have said they don’t want to wait for the list to come out, in part because even if the schools are high on the list, it takes years to go through the elaborate state process before construction begins.

Reiche School (Staff file photo by Derek Davis)

“Voters simply don’t think it’s fair to fix some elementary schools and not others. We’ve been assured for two decades that the state will pay to fix our schools,” said Figdor, noting that Portland has applied to have seven schools fixed with state money. “The idea that the state is going to pay to fix all these schools is a fantasy, the same one our city has been chasing for 23 years.”

A poll on the bonds was commissioned by the Maine Education Association and released by Protect Our Neighborhood Schools in early October. The group said the internal poll, which surveyed 397 voters from Sept. 6-10, found that 55 percent of likely voters supported the four-school bond, while 35 percent supported the two-school option. The margin of error was 4.9 percentage points. It was conducted by Public Policy Polling of Raleigh, North Carolina.

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