Portland Public Schools will likely ask voters for over $1B this fall
Portland School District is likely to ask voters to approve a roughly $1.4 billion eight-year bond this November.
But exactly what it will pay for has yet to be decided.
Board members agreed in January that a new bond measure should go on the November ballot, to address facility remodel needs and a host of other upgrades across the district. Bonds pay for capital projects and materials, but not staffing.
The exact bond amount, and what projects it would fund, haven't been voted on yet by the school board. Whatever spending package the district comes up with, it likely will include the remodel of Benson Polytechnic High School, which was included in the 2017 bond, but which wasn't completed due to construction cost overages.
Along with Benson, the district could choose to put three other schools highest on the remodel priority list: Cleveland, Jefferson and Wilson high schools. The district already has master plans for those sites. Needed repairs on the high schools are estimated at $40 million each, with complete rebuilds expected to cost closer to $250 million each, according to PPS.
That just scratches the surface.
This time around, the board isn't so sure high school remodels are the most pressing need.
Other priority projects need to be addressed, such as seismic upgrades to make schools earthquake-safe; asbestos removal; proper access for students and visitors with disabilities; updated curriculum; and technology upgrades to improve internet access, among other needs.
PPS board member Andrew Scott said $1.4 billion is "a very large chunk but it's a small chunk of what needs to be done." Scott spoke during a Tuesday, Feb. 18, board work session. He said he was eager to continue the work that didn't get finished in the last bond.
"We owe it to the parents to continue on that path that PPS laid out of moving forward," Scott said.
The school improvements being considered fall into four main categories: educational improvements; physical facility improvements; increased capacity; and modernization.
School board members are in agreement that the district's list of needs is long and critical, but they don't agree on which items should take priority and be included in the next bond.
"No matter how we slice this bond, it will not address all (projects)," Dan Jung, district chief operating officer, said.
While Director Scott Bailey suggested going "all in on modernization," board chair Amy Kohnstamm leaned more toward updating the district's 20-year-old curriculum and addressing outdated technology. Director Michelle DePass advocated for earthquake safety upgrades and improving facilities for historically underserved students.
The 2020 bond will be the largest ever floated by the district, but as with any budgeting process, there will be haves and have-nots. Many of the district's 81 school buildings are aging and have outdated infrastructure or mechanical failures.
Almost each week, teachers take to social media to share anecdotes with parents and staff about coming to work in classrooms with malfunctioning heat or air conditioning. Some rooms never reach 60 degrees in winter. Others have buckets that catch rainwater from leaky roofs, discolored ceiling tiles and rodents.
The district is well aware of its backlog of repair and maintenance.
"PPS has neglected everything for decades," Director Rita Moore said. She suggested shifting focus away from school remodels and more toward concrete needs and the prevention of "essential system failures."
"It's great to walk into a brand spanking new building, but it'd be great if that building could actually function," Moore said.
The board will need to hammer out its priorities soon, but it also will need to convince voters that the district can do a better job of estimating and managing project costs than it did in 2017, when a $790 million bond came up short on the projects it promised to deliver.
"Final cost estimate figures presented to the Board of Education were based on assumptions that were too low and a formal documented methodology did not exist to substantiate cost factors that were lower than market conditions at that time," anaudit report released last spring states.
A bond accountability committee continues to review progress on 2017 bond projects and would do the same for any new bond.
The fall 2020 bond would be the third general obligation bond measure pitched to voters by the school district since 2012 and the second within a year's time. In November 2019, Portland voters approved the renewal of a tax levy that helps pay for teachers and district staff.
Note: A previous version of this story misstated the estimated cost to rebuild three high schools. The figures have been updated to reflect more accurate costs.
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