By Shelby Sebens │ Northwest Watchdog
PORTLAND, Ore. — Expecting Portland residents to shoulder a $482 million bond for school upgrades misses the mark on improving the quality of education students need, a local group says.
But Portland school officials say this construction is long overdue — for some schools, more than 60 years, in fact.
The Portland Public Schools district has laid off teachers and cut programs to make ends meet in recent years, but critics question whether school officials are effective stewards of taxpayers’ money.
And now the district wants voters to decide in November, if they want to pay higher taxes for upgrades at mainly four schools out of 78.
Teresa McGuire, a parent who volunteered extensively before her children graduated from Wilson High School, says this bond does nothing to address more immediate problems, including a low graduation rate.
“It all goes back to it’s not going to solve anything in the classroom,” said McGuire, who is also a member of Restore Education Before Buildings, a group of parents and community members campaigning against Measure 26-144.
However, Portland Public Schools Board Member Bobbie Regan argues that the construction is needed, because the buildings aren’t supporting instruction.
“It has been a long, long time since we have had the ability to do significant work to our buildings, and it shows,” Regan said. The most recent facilities bond was in the 1995 and before that it was in the 1940s.
The proposed bond would require a tax increase, estimated at $1.10 per $1,000 of assessed property value for the first eight years, dropping to about 30 cents per $1,000 for an additional 12 years, according to PPS. For example, the owner of a house that costs $150,000, would start paying an extra $165 a year and then drop to about $45.
The bulk of the bond — $233 million — would pay for upgrades at Franklin, Roosevelt and Grant high schools as well as the K-8 school, Fabion. The remainder would cover debt payments at the Rosa Parks School and upgrade science classrooms at 38 schools.
Regan acknowledged the graduation rate for the state’s largest district, 62 percent, is “abysmal,” one of the lowest in the state.
But she said the schools have to take a step-by-step approach to fixing all of the problems in the classroom. She pointed out that the graduation rate has increased by 9 percentage points during the past three years.
But critics say the bond is just a repeat of a measure that failed in May 2011, when it went before voters. Restore Education Before Buildings argues that the school district needs to cut administrative costs or consolidate some schools that are under capacity, rather than tax the city’s residents.
“What they need is a strategic plan and along with strategic is cost effective,” said Kelsey Grout, a group member whose three children went through Portland Public Schools. “I just cannot understand it. For some reason, they do not want to focus on their main mission and that is education.”
But the school district is hesitant about closing schools, because it is a difficult and emotional process for the effected communities. Regan said that in her 10 years on the board, the district has closed about a dozen schools.
For one parent, the bond is a worthy investment.
“It’s hardly outrageous, said Nancy Hamilton, whose son is a senior at Grant High School. “It’s a very responsible attempt to begin to reinvest in our schools.”
Hamilton chaired a long-range facilities committee made up of residents and community leaders, after the school district’s failed attempt to get a bond passed in 2011. The $548 million bond would have raised taxes $2 per $1,000 of assessed property.
She argues that improved buildings create a better atmosphere for learning and will, in turn, improve education.
On average, Portland’s 78 schools are 65 years or older and hold a total of 47,000 students. Many don’t comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and have heating and cooling problems, she added.
McGuire and Grout said they agree safe buildings should be a priority, but more needs to be done to ensure taxpayer money is being spent in the right places.
“At this point, I’m not sure what the solutions are,” McGuire said. “To me, it seems like there’s plenty of money. It’s just not being spent wisely.”
Contact Shelby Sebens at Shelby@NorthwestWatchdog.org, or follow her on Twitter @ShelbySebens. For more Northwest Watchdog updates, visit Facebook and Twitter.