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Portland Public Schools board will decide in coming weeks how to finance the third high school project in the bond - Benson Polytechnic High School.

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Portland Public Schools board member Amy Kohnstamm speaks at a recent school board meeting. Despite a $100 million projected gap in funding for its 2017 school construction bond, the Portland Public Schools board is unlikely to set its sights lower on the rebuilds of Madison High, Lincoln High, Benson Tech and Kellogg Middle schools.

Board members and the school community were shocked a month ago to find that the bond projects' projected costs were coming in a combined $136 million over budget. Project teams were able to get that down to an $89 million deficit but then the board voted to add in $11 million of debt on its middle school restructuring plan.

Trying to figure out what could be cut and how projections got so far off has been the focus of weekly meetings ever since.

But at the May 8 board meeting, it became clear that no board member had the appetite to chop up the master plans for Madison and Lincoln high schools.

"If we're going to do this, we need to do it right," said board Co-Vice Chair Rita Moore. "We need to do what we said we were going to do."

Board Chair Julia Brim-Edwards offered two paths for making up the missing money: slicing off about a tenth of each project's budget and making sacrifices, or financing the second half of the Benson Polytechnic High School's $202 million plan.

The board members did not like the idea of a 10 percent "hair cut" of each project, fearing it would mess up the cascading construction schedules and build schools below the agreed-upon educational design specifications.

Financing could mean taking out a loan that is paid back with general fund dollars — an idea that the superintendent and six board members didn't like during the middle school funding discussion.

Or, it could mean the district splits up Benson Tech's rebuild into two phases, rolling "phase two" to the anticipated November 2020 request for bond funding that would rebuild more of the district's aging schools. As the last school in the bond plan, actual work on Benson Tech isn't expected to start until the summer of 2021, so, with voter approval, it could be fully funded before work began.

Located near the Lloyd Center mall in inner Northeast Portland, Benson Tech is the largest of the nine high school campuses and was built in 1912. It houses a magnet high school trades program with expensive equipment, as well as multiple alternative education programs.

Brim-Edwards mentioned multiple times that she wanted to have a commitment that Benson Tech would be fully built out, rather than: "Too bad you happened to be on the bond where the cost estimates were off and we have to do something less."

Rob Johns, president of the Benson Tech Foundation, said he is still worried that the school will be hung out to dry.

Splitting the rebuild into two phases was an idea floated in August 2016, Johns said, and he accuses former board chair Amy Kohnstamm of deceiving voters.

Johns filed a formal complaint this week against Kohnstamm for elections fraud, but the Secretary of State's office has already responded that it lacks jurisdiction in these circumstances. Johns said he is considering his options.

"There was an intentionally low number put out on the bond," Johns said, acknowledging that the ballot language does not specifically mention any schools. "I know they played the game to make it mushy."

Kohnstamm said at the board meeting that she was committed to building Benson Tech into "the premiere, 21st century, (career-technical education) high school in the entire country."

Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero — who noted that PPS has dozens of elementary and middle schools that also are in bad shape — supported the board's direction.

"There was a commitment to deliver on world-class high schools and I think we should deliver on that promise," Guerrero said.

Moses Tran, the often-quiet student representative on the PPS board, attends Benson Polytechnic High School. He was not shy about expressing his belief that PPS students, including those at Madison, deserved high-quality buildings that will last.

"No student should have to learn in the facility conditions that we've had to gone through ever again in this district," Tran said. "If we need to spend more money ... then we should." He noted that ceiling tiles fall and water leaks through the roof into classrooms at PPS schools.

"Eighty to 100 years from now, our schools may be outdated, but they should not be deteriorating like they are right now," Tran said.

The head of the Office of School Modernization, Dan Jung, will present a plan for board approval May 22. The discussion on how exactly the plan will be financed will follow in weeks and months to come. Construction on Madison is expected to start in 2019.

UPDATE (5/9/18): Moses Tran's school was misidentified. He attends Benson Tech.

UPDATE (5/10/18): More details were added to Tran's statements.

Shasta Kearns Moore
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