Portland school district likely to send $1.2B bond to voters
The Portland Public School Board of Education is expected Tuesday to approve putting a $1.208 billion bond on the November ballot, the largest bond ever for the state's largest school district.
The vote was scheduled for after the Tribune's print deadline. A follow-up story will be posted at PortlandTribune.com.
The bond would pay for a rebuild of North Portland's Jefferson High School, the completion of the Benson Polytechnic High School campus and dozens of other projects and purchases.
At one board meeting, discussing all the district needs and a desire to rebuild Jefferson, director Rita Moore said "we should go big" and urged directors to include Jefferson in the bond.
Board members and district administrators stressed that taxes will not go up for property owners because of decreasing costs of district debt.
The school district board held multiple bond committee and board meetings and asked the community for input. The district conducted focus groups and a virtual town hall at which community members, students, parents and others weighed in on priorities for the district. The groups discussed what were the highest priority projects and considered how much money each would likely cost.
Ultimately the voters will give the $1.208 billion package a thumbs up or down in November.
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the district had discussed a $1.4 billion bond, but chastened by the cratering economy, there was a push to pare down the bond and the building projects.
The district presented the school board options as small as $584 million with a significantly scaled-back project list. But ultimately, after some exploration and much discussion, more proposals were included to reach the record $1.208 billion package.
The bond will be one of several money measures on the November ballot including a $387 million Multnomah County Library bond and a $5.2 billion Metro transportation measure funded by a payroll tax. There also likely will be an ask for $240 million over five years for Portland parks and probably a free preschool measure that would tax high earners in Multnomah County to fund preschools for all children in the county.
The PPS staff is recommending the board approve sending the bond to voters and no board member expressed opposition to the bond over multiple board meetings and forums.
The $1.2 billion PPS bond is divided into three main categories: building modernization, education and accessibility improvements and health and safety projects.
The biggest chunk of the proposed PPS bond, $639 million, will go to modernization and rebuilds of schools in the district. A rebuild of Jefferson High School is nearly half that total, coming in at $311 million.
Some of the money will go toward finishing up construction on Benson Polytechnic High School, started under the last bond but snared in cost overruns. Benson will account for $152 million of the proposed bond and another $64 million will go toward construction on the Benson campus to house the "multiple pathways to graduation" alternative school programs.
The bond also will allocate $60 million for the planning, design and phased construction at the neighborhood schools surrounding Jefferson in a project the district calls the Center for Black Student Excellence. It is described as a "culturally affirming approach and set of community-developed strategies aligned towards promoting Black student excellence from cradle to career."
Two other high schools will get some attention, with $40 million of the bond going to planning, design and reconstruction of Cleveland and Wilson. PPS plans to ask voters in 2024 for funds for the actual construction at these two high schools.
The district is prioritizing the modernizations of high schools first, because they house the most students. Franklin, Grant and Roosevelt already have been rebuilt. Madison and Lincoln are under construction. The 2020 bond also includes funds for design work for adding capacity at Roosevelt.
The bond includes $228 million for new curriculum materials, technology, special education investment and upgrades to improve the accessibility of buildings for students and others with disabilities. The bulk of that, $128 million, is for technology upgrades, which have taken on new urgency with the distance learning made necessary by the coronavirus pandemic.
At a bond forum director Amy Kohnstamm noted the district is "decades behind" updating books, curriculum and technology and that fixing it is "more than our general fund could afford."
Some of the technology will be assistive technology for special needs students and replacement and bolstering the supply of Chromeboooks and laptops and updating school building technology infrastructure.
The bond includes $13.4 million to alter schools and classrooms across the district to ensure more students with special needs have "accessible, flexible and adaptive opportunities that promote inclusive practices" and $33.8 million will be spent to make sure all schools are accessible on the main floor throughout the district.
The district looks to spend $183.8 million on the more mundane but vital "health and safety" projects such as $75 million for HVAC and mechanical upgrades, $65.7 for new roofs and roof repairs at 12 buildings, $25.9 million on security upgrades to make schools safer and $17.2 million on seismic improvements to protect students and staff in the case of an earthquake.
The board was scheduled to vote on referring the bond to the November ballot on Tuesday, July 28.
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