BY BRIAN LIBBY
A new pair of ballot measures in support of local schools, set for a vote by Portlanders on May 17, is turning out to be a confusing question even for those with every intention of giving local education everything it needs. But, as President Obama likes to say, it’s also a teachable moment about education funding and building.
Over the weekend two high school students knocked on my door with a flyer urging support for Measures 26-121 and 122 in the upcoming election. The flyer makes a dire case that, as its italics, upper-case and underlining suggest, “OUR SCHOOLS ARE IN TROUBLE." Not THEIR schools, in case you didn't get it. OUR schools.
“The bond measure raises $548 million for Portland’s 85 school buildings using a ‘pay as you go’ approach that will save over $200 million in interest payments by issuing these school bonds to spend over six years instead of the traditional 20 years,” it explains. “Independent construction engineers have prioritized the bond projects for urgency and cost-effectiveness. The cost of the bond is approximately $2 per $1,000 of assessed value. An Independent Oversight Committee, annual audits and monthly reports will ensure dollars are spent as promised.”
There’s no doubt plenty of architectural horror stories are available. As the flyer’s array of bullet points indicate, almost half of Portland schools depend on old oil furnaces that are inefficient, expensive and potentially hazardous to fire. Electrical systems are out of date and cannot support contemporary telecommunications equipment. Every one of Portland’s 85 school buildings needs more classrooms and upgrades to its HVAC systems. The supposedly temporary nature of the add-on trailer has become a permanent fixture beside most K-12 facilities in the district. Think about it: your kid likely studies in an unofficial mobile home park. And we wonder why the Chinese are kicking our educational butts? And of course in this rainy climate, numerous schools are leaking. At one elementary school in the PPS portfolio, ten 50-gallon barrels are required to collect water whenever it rains.
So why in the world would some of the very people who would seem to care most about improving the woeful state of Portland’s public elementary, middle and high schools be asking voters to reject half of the May 17 schools ballot?
The “Learn Now, Build Later” is asking voters to support the levy for schools but reject the bond.
The levy is essential, they say. If it fails, Portland will have to cut more than 300 teaching positions or 21 school days and educational programs. And even if it passes, we will still lose roughly 115 teachers or 7 school days.
At the same time, the “Learn Now, Build Later” campaign say adding the bond to the levy is too great a burden for local households.
“We had go-go years for the last nine years and the economy was strong, and the school board did nothing,” says architect Stuart Emmons, a Lincoln High parent and one of the co-leaders of the pro-levy, anti-bond campaign. (In full disclosure, Stuart and I co-led the Memorial Coliseum preservation campaign.) “All of a sudden they wait for unemployment to go into doing this.”
If voters approve both the levy and bond, the owner of an average home worth $230,000 will see a $500/year annual increase – about $350 for the bond and $130 for the operating levy. Many homeowners face annual increases of $700-$1,000 or more.
“Learn Now, Build Later” also argues that while surrounding districts are consolidating smaller schools to conserve costs while offering a solid education, PPS has illogically and wastefully prioritized rebuilds of small schools over larger schools with worse facilities rankings. “It’s a really poorly thought out bond,” Emmons adds. “They’re not getting enough bang for their buck or distributing the money right.”
“I served on the PPS Board from 1995-2003. For six of those years, I chaired the budget committee. For seven, I chaired the facilities committee. I am a dedicated progressive, and have voted for every PPS measure until now, but I cannot support the bond,” says Marc Abrams, another pro-levy, anti-bond campaigner. “It targets the wrong buildings, at the wrong price. In addition, I do not believe PPS has truly made the facilities reductions that were necessary and which I advocated over the years. Had they done so, some of this would have been avoidable.”
Emmons also argues that, while marketing for the levy and bond “yes” campaign has emphasized seismic stability as part of what the bond will address—a timely mention given the recent Japanese earthquake and tsunami—in truth seismic upgrades would comprise a relatively small portion of the bond, somewhere in the range of 10 percent (not including the two schools planned to be rebuilt entirely). “I can see all these TV commercials with ceilings crashing over kids’ heads,” the architect says. “But there’s just not enough going to seismic in this bill.”
He also criticizes Portland Public Schools for a lack of long-term strategy. “I don’t think they’re ever going to get caught up,” Emmons says. “They need to think of how after five or six bond measures we’ll be completely there.”
Besides just waiting two years to write a better bond measure, Emmons argued in a recent Oregonian editorial for an alternate plan: rebuilding every high school in the city. “Imagine the number of students that would be impacted. Imagine the excitement in all corners of our city, as students from kindergarten through 8th grade will look forward to learning in a new 21st century high school,” he writes.
By no means does everyone among parents and progressives support the “Build Later” campaign.
“I feel like the two measures leverage each other,” said Katharine Sammons, a Chapmant K-8 School parent, in a January 24 Portland Tribune article by Jennifer Anderson. “I’ve been in a lot of these schools. Particularly with the earthquake (in Japan), it’s scary.” At West Sylvan, where her daughter will be in three years, Sammons explained, there’s dry rot on the windows, “it’s leaking all over the place,” and there are asbestos pipes within kids’ reach with large danger warnings on them.”
This issue will be the topic of an April 22 City Club Friday Forum called “The PPS Bond Measure: What would $548 million buy?” with Peyton Chapman, principal at Lincoln High School and Charlene Williams, principal of Roosevelt High School.
Perhaps there is some reason for skepticism about the “Learn Now, Build Later” campaign. Take the notion that the recession makes this the wrong time. A leader like Franklin Roosevelt might have countered that economic downturns are precisely the right time for a public works project because they bring jobs to builders, architects and many subcontractors.
What’s more, if we wait for Portland Public Schools to produce a smarter, better-targeted bond, it might be a case of Waiting For Godot. Why wait two years or more when this bond is already on the ballot? Even if the money isn’t allocated ideally, it’s at least, upon passage, being allocated. Clearly regardless of whether the bond targets the right schools in the right combination, pretty much all 85 schools in the PPS district need work.
There is also plenty of room for creativity and greater skepticism about how the bond system works. As Emmons pointed out, for all of the millions the bond is asking for, it doesn’t even provide enough funds for the work being sought. This is a common tactic with public bonds, asking for just a little less than they actually need.
What’s more, why must such bonds for parks and schools always be presented as an all-or-nothing decision? Why must we either spend $548 million in state property tax money via levy and bond or nothing? These initiatives should be done in cooperation with the philanthropic community, which can selectively help with donations and fundraising. We don’t just need to potentially wait two years for a better bond, but to re-think bonds, levies and the overall mechanism of K-12 school funding. It needn’t be a continuous case of famine, feast and famine again. There also needs to be more opportunity for individual schools to assess and fundraise for their own needs.
Honestly, I don’t yet know how I’m going to vote. PPS doesn’t seem to have done Portland many favors with the timing, content and presentation of the levy and bond. Yet it’s dangerous when one is standing in a barren desert, overcome with thirst, and passes up a savior of a bus stoppping because the next bus that comes is a better ride. Sometimes we may need to get on the bus and hope to influence the next one.