Paying for schools is always a balancing act. You have to match the district’s needs with a commitment that the money raised from taxes will be spent with care.

In the spirit of striking that balance, we support a two-step process for upgrading Portland’s rundown elementary schools, issuing bonds to renovate two of the schools now while continuing to seek state funding for two others, as outlined in Question 4 on the Nov. 7 ballot.

And for the same reason, we oppose Question 3, which would have Portland’s property tax payers solely responsible for a $64 million bond to rebuild all four schools without any state help.

Portland taxpayers have shown their commitment to public education time and time again, but their resources are not endless. We believe that Portland voters can signal both the city’s commitment to its public schools and the prudent use of property tax revenue by voting “no” on Question 3 and “yes” on Question 4.

This has not always been our position.

We endorsed the four-school bond in March when this issue was before the City Council. At that time, we said that it was important that voters get the chance to invest in neglected public infrastructure. But the bond’s proponents on the council fell one vote short of what was needed to get the question on the ballot. So a compromise was struck, and now both options will go before the voters.

Like the voters, we looked at the issue again, comparing the two approaches. We talked to advocates on both sides and determined that our original position had been wrong. We oppose Question 3 and support Question 4 because, in our estimation, the city would be better off with more state funding for its schools and approving the $64 million bond would shut that door prematurely.

Unfortunately, voters will have to decide what to support without a key piece of information: Will Portland’s Longfellow and Reiche schools get state funding? No one can say.

Both fell just short of funding in the last round, but that is no guarantee that they will be on top of the list next year. The state will issue its rankings next spring, but no one will know for sure how many projects will get funded until January 2019 at the earliest. In the summer of 2019, Reiche and Longfellow could end up in even worse physical condition than they are now, looking for local funding after building costs have increased with inflation.

It’s a risk, but we think that’s a risk worth taking. If one school gets state funding, that’s $16 million that local property taxpayers don’t have to borrow. And if two schools are funded, it’s $32 million. If neither gets funding, there is plenty of time to pass a local bond and keep on schedule.

Proponents of Question 3 have argued that committing to the four-school bond would allow an accelerated timeline, and the city could complete all four schools in as little as five years. That sounds like wishful thinking, at best.

A much more realistic schedule, given the city’s administrative resources and the limits of the southern Maine labor pool, would be four schools in eight years, something that could be done with either funding strategy.

Harder to dismiss is the Question 3 supporters’ concern about the political uncertainty ahead if voters don’t approve the bigger bond. It’s true that there could be as many as three City Council elections before Portland knows whether it got state funding, and by that time the council could have a very different cast of characters than it has today.

But that open question is nothing compared to the uncertainty that comes from dropping out of the state funding process without even knowing whether these projects could have been completed with state money. Portland residents would never know if their property tax or rent might have been lower if they had chosen a more deliberate process.

Parents are right to want the best for kids who are in schools now, but they owe their neighbors the assurance that the city took every step possible to minimize the cost.

Question 3, the $64 million bond, does not offer that assurance.

Question 4 does, so we encourage Portlanders to vote “yes.”

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