December 2, 2016
Mr. Geiger, members of the State Board of Education Construction Committee, my name is Xavier Botana and I am the Superintendent of the Portland Public Schools. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak to you today about the district’s request for approval of the construction projects for the Longfellow and Reiche elementary schools.
First, a little bit of background… The Portland Public Schools has 15 schools, including 9 elementary schools, three middle schools and three high schools. Last Spring, after years of consideration and planning, the Portland Board of Public Education advanced a proposal to the Portland City Council to have 4 elementary schools, Longfellow and Reiche, along with Lyseth and Presumpscot schools updated to 21st Century learning standards at an estimated cost of just over $70 million. The intent was for the Portland Council to approve a voter referendum for these projects.
This past summer, a week into my tenure, the City Council created an adhoc committee in collaboration with the Board to review all of the four schools' needs, project details, and overall financial impact to make a recommendation to move these schools forward. It became apparent early in the committee’s work that while everyone understands the dire circumstances at these schools, as stewards of the public trust, our elected officials hesitate to take on these projects when the possibility exists for state funding for at least two of the schools. In fact, as you know, Longfellow and Reiche stand at #2 and #3 on the list of schools that have not been funded from the 2010-2011 state approved construction project list.
In September DOE announced that they would no longer fund projects from that list and that they would proceed with the development of a new list of projects. Based on the projected timeline for the development of a new list, new projects would be approved no earlier than Fall of 2018. With customary design and reviews, the earliest any project would break ground would likely be the Spring of 2022.
We realize that the September decision was a well-intended effort to address the projected shortfall in room under the state’s debt ceiling in 2022. Given those projections (which, I believe are accurately reflected in our October 26th letter to DOE and November 9th letter to the State Board) it made sense for the DOE to determine it was time to develop a new list. After all, DOE could not recommend additional schools; and, as time has gone by in the six year’s since that list was developed, schools throughout the state, including in Portland, that were not on the 2010 list have developed urgent needs and the relative position of schools on the list may have changed.
So, then, you may ask, why did we take the unusual step that brings us here today?
Portland’s needs are acute. I have with me a recent facilities assessment commissioned by the City and district to review the current state of all of our buildings. As you can see, this is an extensive document. It projects 20 year capital needs in the neighborhood of 300 million—over 140 million in the next ten years. I have included with my packet, a copy of the summary of those needs. As you can see, the two schools we are proposing you approve—Reiche and Longfellow—are estimated to require nearly $5 million in repairs in the next 5 years and over $21 million in the next 10 years. It is important to note that these estimated costs are just for repairs to existing plant and systems and not for bringing those schools up to 21st Century Learning standards.
Reiche and Longfellow have been on State Construction lists for over 15 years. In 2001, Longfellow was #73 of 92 and Reiche #67 of 92. In the 2004 list, Longfellow was 48 of 66 and Reiche 23 of 66. In this past list, as you know, they were 18 and 21 respectively.
Past history suggests that the chances are good for schools in Longfellow and Reiche’s position to receive state funding in the next round. A review of the 2001 list shows that out of the 5 schools just below the funding cut off, 3 of those schools received funding in the subsequent round. Of the remaining two schools, Peru Elementary School was consolidated with another school in Canton and SAD 28, Rockport came off the list because it became a locally funded project. Of the 5 schools just below the funding cut off for the 2004 list, 4 out of the 5 received funding in the 2010 round. Only Portland’s Reiche didn’t get funded, in spite of having improved its position from the previous list.
In other words, it is reasonable to expect that these schools, given their past trajectory and given the pressing needs (remember: 21 million in the next 10 years) as determined by our recent engineering report, will likely be funded in the next round.
So, you might ask, why not wait our turn?
Portland’s situation is fairly unique. As I noted at the beginning, we are engaged in a process to undertake a large infrastructure project—Buildings for our Future-- to bring our aging elementary schools to 21st Century learning standards. Knowing that you added these two schools to the Approved Projects List — with or without the interest only financing component— will enable the adhoc committee to move forward with the renovations of our other two schools, Lyseth and Presumpscot. Our community can continue the dialogue about having great schools, befitting a great city, knowing that they will not have to pit the needs of one school community against the other. Rather, we can move forward assured that the vision for high quality 21st Century learning settings in all of Portland’s elementary schools can come to fruition.
I would now like to ask Dick Spencer to discuss the value added proposition that we advanced using the Interest Only Interim Local Financing process.
I want to be clear that we believe our proposal is a creative option that can be a bonus for the taxpayers at the state and district level. I also feel confident assuring you that Portland Public Schools would be satisfied with being added to the Approved Projects List, even with a delayed implementation of the State's funding obligation so that Portland can proceed with the planning and implementation for the rest of its capital needs. The assurance of future funding, would influence the order in which we tackle our four projects, but would still allow us to move forward with locally funded projects at the remaining two schools while we wait for state funding for Longfellow and Reiche. It will allow us to bring a viable proposal to Portland’s taxpayers that includes the assurance that all four projects will get done.
In short, Portland is not asking the state to relieve it of its own obligations. On the contrary, Portland stands ready to invest tens of millions of local dollars to our elementary school renovations. All we ask is that the State help provide the certainty to allow us to pick a path and move forward. But no responsible stewards of public funds could finalize plans without knowing whether they needed to stretch available resources over 4 projects or concentrate on 2. And no responsible planners could forego the opportunity to advocate for State support knowing that history suggests a high likelihood that our projects will soon be funded by the state, knowing that there may not be enough local funds available to fully address the needs of 4 separate schools without state funding.
Chris Hall, President of the Portland Regional Chamber wanted to be here to speak on our behalf. Chris, better than anyone, understands the importance of great schools to the viability of Portland. He also understands the importance of smart stewardship of taxpayers’ resources and the impact of escalating local tax rates. Chris could not be here today because he is attending Glenn Cummings’ installation as President at USM. He provided the letter which I’ve included in your packet and which he asked me to read for the record.
Read Chris’ letter
In closing, I would like to thank you for taking the time to listen to our request and consider its merits. We understand that this is an unusual request and believe that we are offering a compelling win-win proposition. I look forward to answering your questions.