$64M Portland school bond heads to City Council

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PORTLAND — A bond to renovate and upgrade four elementary schools is one step closer to voters.

On Feb. 23, the City Council Finance Committee, with Chairman Nick Mavodones absent, voted 2-0 to forward a $64 million bond question to the full City Council.

“For me, I am ready to move on this,” Councilor Justin Costa said after he and Councilor Pious Ali first increased the borrowing proposal to $64 million from $61 million.

Ali shared Costa’s opinion that the bond’s time has come.

“I’m surprised I am sitting here today making a decision on something we should have done four years ago when I first got to the School Board,” Ali said.

Ali and Costa are both former School Board members, acquainted with the arguments and research that led to the Buildings For Our Future report behind the bond proposal.

No agendas have been set, but a City Council vote on the bond could happen by the March 20 meeting, after a first reading that could happen March 6.

Seven councilors must vote in favor of a bond to place it on a referendum ballot. The council can reduce the amount of borrowing, but the process would essentially have to begin anew if councilors want an increase.

The proposal was originally $71 million to upgrade Longfellow, Lyseth, Presumpscot and Reiche Elementary schools, which range in age from 45 years old to 65 years old.

In December, an ad hoc committee of councilors and School Board members reduced the bond by $10 million before returning the question to the full School Board for review.

The $3.3 million returned to the bond would pay for masonry work and an elevator at Longfellow, plus a parking lot and site improvements at Lyseth.

Those items had been placed in future capital improvements plans.

“By amending the bond this way we paint a clearer picture of the full cost of the renovations and assure that the work on the schools can be done in a time frame that doesn’t have to wait for the CIP to be funded in the future,” Mayor Ethan Strimling said Feb. 16.

The revised bond is expected to add 69 cents by 2024 to the current city property tax rate of $21.10 per $1,000 of assessed value, city Finance Director Brendan O’Connell said.

If the bonds are bought at incremental periods to match building projects, O’Connell said the principle and interest payments would add $92 million to the city tax levy over the life of the bonds. He said for each $100,000 of property valuation, a tax bill would “increase $1,128 over the life of the bonds.”

Those projected increases do not account for other school or municipal budget decisions that could also result in tax increases.

Public testimony lasting a little more than an hour was by and large in support of the full bond, as opposed to a smaller one that might cover work at two schools while waiting to see how the state Department of Education might rank projects for possible funding.

“Pretty horrified we are back to talking about two schools again,” Hartley Street resident Christine Albert said.

Supporters of including all four schools on the bond were not reassured the DOE might decide in 13 months on a new priority list for school construction, with all four elementary schools in the application process.

School Superintendent Xavier Botana said the department will apply for funding for six schools, with Casco Bay High School/Portland Arts & Technology High School and Deering High School added to the four elementary schools.

Supporters of the full bond said any tax increases would be offset by improvements in education that would benefit the whole city and perhaps draw more families.

“I am asking you to raise my taxes, please raise my taxes,” Brackett Street resident Joanna Frankel said.

Concord Street resident Kari Rasheed now has a child at Longfellow and said renovation will provide intangible benefits.

“Those dollars will come back to us, but not in nice spreadsheet rows,” she said. “You’re deciding to let the community decide, and I don’t think that has been put out there enough.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Concord Street resident Kari Rasheed speaks at a City Hall hearing Feb. 23 in favor of sending a $64 million bond for school improvements to voters.

Funding a new elevator and masonry work at Longfellow Elementary School on Stevens Avenue are part of the reason why a proposal to bond $61 million to renovate city schools was increased to $64 million.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.