I know that good schools are central to the well-being and prosperity of a community. I also know that here in Portland, we need significant updates at all seventeen of our schools.
Passing a narrowly focused $60-$70 million bond will not help us to achieve that goal. In fact, it will do the opposite. It will leave the most pressing needs in our school system unmet while raising property taxes, eliminating teaching positions, and decreasing municipal services. Here’s why.
A recent system-wide assessment of our school facilities concluded that across the district, we’ll need to make a minimum of $321 million in capital improvements over the next 20 years. These improvements are not optional. They include things like life safety and security upgrades, sanitary waste system overhauls, and foundation repairs. Passing a bond focused on just four schools now will make it impossible to perform these updates without significant cuts to other parts of the school budget.
Let’s talk numbers for a minute. If we pass this bond and don’t cut teachers, ed techs, and bus drivers or significantly decrease other city services, property taxes will increase by 30% during the first three years of borrowing. That means that a September 2021 tax bill for a property valued at $225,000 will be $6,336. That’s too much for many local taxpayers to pay, especially when we have other options.
There are opportunities for state funding to help defray the costs of updating our schools. The state has a Major Capital School Construction fund for complete school rebuilds or renovations. The state also offers a Revolving Renovation Fund for smaller projects like adding an elevator or upgrading an electrical system. But school renovation projects that have been bonded locally are not eligible for state funding.
So, if we pass a bond for these four schools—two of which would likely receive major capital construction funds—we will be leaving a lot of state money on the table.
Applications for the current round of major capital construction funds are due in April 2017. We’ll know by June of 2018 which of our schools, if any, qualify for the next round of state funding. Some advocates for the four-school bond have said they don’t want to wait that long. That doesn’t make sense.
We can’t have four elementary schools under construction at the same time. We wouldn’t have enough space for our students. Therefore, the construction schedules would need to be staggered.
If we pass this bond in June, construction on the first school wouldn’t begin until spring of 2019 at the earliest. The second school wouldn’t be started until 2020—two years after we’d know our state funding options. Bonding four schools at once is not just fiscally irresponsible, it’s poor planning. There is a better path forward.
The system-wide assessment that was completed in December includes a 20-year plan to update all seventeen of our schools, two additional school facilities, and general district items like the phone system and replacement school buses.
This plan, with its $321 million price tag, covers the essential needs that we must address to ensure that all our schools are safe, healthy, accessible, and structurally sound. The $60-$70 million bond currently being debated has never been the right starting point for this conversation. This system-wide survey showing that we have $321 million in capital improvements to complete over the next 20 years is.
This is the way to move forward. If you want to hold your representatives’ feet to the fire on school improvement, this is what you should be demanding. We must implement the 20-year system-wide capital improvement plan to upgrade and maintain all our schools. We must pursue every possible option for state funding. We must invest in our faculty and staff. And we must use local tax dollars wisely over time to make all our schools first-rate facilities.
This approach is equitable and fiscally responsible, and it will get us where we need to go. But it won’t be possible if we ignore the larger picture in favor of a well-intentioned but narrowly focused bond.