What may seem like a perpetual request for tax money to benefit Portland Public Schools will continue this year, with a 2020 school bond.
The Portland School Board voted unanimously Tuesday, Jan. 7, to start preparing a November 2020 ballot measure to support ongoing building and construction needs.
While planning is underway, a dollar amount has yet to be established. Board members said the current property tax rate wouldn't change.
The next round of property tax requests comes on the heels of a November 2019 tax levy renewal that voters approved by 77%. That levy, Measure 26-207, was approved to help fund teachers and classroom aides.
Bonds, on the other hand, are designated for building upgrades and school remodels or rebuilds.
District officials said another bond is needed sooner, rather than waiting another year, noting bonds are "the only financial tool available to public school districts to support large scale capital improvements."
"PPS has significant documented capital improvement needs that exceed over $1 billion," a report to the board from PPS Chief Operating Officer Dan Jung stated.
A 2020 bond measure would come three years after voters approved a $790 million Health Safety and Modernization Bond in May of 2017.
The cost to property owners? That measure bills $1.40 per $1,000 of assessed property value for the first four years, with that amount declining afterward, to an average amount of .68 cents per $1,000 of assessed value over 30 years, as stated in county elections records.
Bond funds fell short
At the time, PPS promised to modernize or rebuild three different high schools — Lincoln High, Madison High and Benson Polytechnic High School, as well as Kellogg Middle School, but since then, the district revealed it underestimated construction costs and the previous bond wouldn't leave enough to rebuild Benson. Bond audits say the shortfall for Benson was caused by "increased construction costs and low initial bond budget estimates."
An April 2019 bond audit report shared with the school board showed PPS needs an additional $280 million to build or rebuild the schools it promised in 2017. The 2017 bond also pledged to sink at least $150 million into health and safety upgrades at campuses across the city. While many projects like improvements under the Americans with Disabilities Act have been completed and others are underway, some parents say critical security upgrades at schools, like modernized door locks, have yet to be installed.
Prior to that, voters approved a $482 million bond in 2012 to pay for re-building Grant, Franklin and Roosevelt high schools, as well as Faubion pre-K-to-8 School. Bond money also was used for seismic upgrades, classroom upgrades and roof repairs at several sites.
While PPS has successfully secured voter support for its previous measures, and expects to do the same this fall, it might have a tough time swaying voters this time around.
Steve Buel, a retired teacher and former PPS board member, challenged the board to better explain the flubs in its last bond measure.
"The present bond has a disparity of approximately $250 million, and now the new plan appears to ask Portland citizens and taxpayers for hundreds of millions of dollars more, and to do so without carefully clarifying why there is such a disparity in the present bond," Buel told the school board during Tuesday's meeting.
School board pledges more transparency
"I think we need to demonstrate to the public that we have learned the lessons from both 2012 and 2017," board director Rita Moore said Tuesday, "and ensure that we will be good stewards of taxpayer money."
Board members said they're prepared to take the heat, but touted the district's long-term planning and commitment to provide better facilities for Portland students.
"Our buildings are further deteriorating every day and we have a responsibility to do something," board director Julia Brim-Edwards said.
Fellow director Andrew Scott, who was elected to the board in 2019, pointed to the district's accountability and audit committees, while Brim-Edwards reiterated, calling the current climate the "golden age of auditing" in PPS.
"We have a bond accountability committee that looks very closely at the spending," Scott said Tuesday. "We're doing better cost estimating validation ... we're also making sure there are adequate contingencies built in to deal with these overages."
Scott noted the district has spent "very little of the 2017 bond" so far.
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