PORTLAND — For those supporting a nearly $61 million bond designed to significantly upgrade four of the city’s elementary schools, the fight is not over – despite a 7-1 vote on Jan. 19 by an ad hoc committee that supports the spending.
Anna Trevorrow, the School Board chairwoman, this week said, “In the end I’m satisfied with the plan,” which reduced an original $70 million borrowing measure for the elementary schools by about $9 million.
But she also expects that “advocacy will be needed at every step” going forward.
Four of the nine members of the School Board, including Trevorrow, were also members of the ad hoc committee convened by Mayor Ethan Strimling last fall to develop the proposed borrowing for the elementary schools. The committee includes School Board members and city councilors; all four School Board members voted last week in favor of the reduced bonding amount.
This week Trevorrow said when the initial cut in spending was recommended “my biggest concern was the impact on student learning and classroom space and providing adequate spaces to teach and learn.”
Despite the reduction in the overall bond amount, Trevorrow said she’s satisfied the new spending measure would provide what is necessary at the four elementary schools – Longfellow, Lyseth, Presumpscot and Reiche.
She anticipates the full board will consent to the $61 million borrowing plan at the first meeting in February because “we want to get this moved forward as soon as possible.”
Trevorrow said while she would not be surprised if some board members still favor the initial bonding amount sent to the City Council last summer, she also said, “I believe they will respect the work of the ad hoc committee.”
After the board votes on a bond amount, the proposal will go to the City Council’s finance committee, which is chaired by Councilor Nick Mavodones, who cast the lone vote against borrowing $61 million during last week’s public hearing at the ad hoc committee level.
The vote of the ad hoc committee is simply a recommendation, Strimling admitted this week, which means neither the School Board nor the City Council is bound by it. This week Mavodones said he’s convinced that the four elementary schools “need considerable work. But what I’m concerned about is how we pay for it.”
That’s why he floated an alternate plan that called for a $31.6 million local bond to pay for upgrades to Lyseth and Presumpscot, then going back to the Maine Department of Education to apply for funding for the work needed at Longfellow and Reiche.
Those schools were next in line to be funded, but just missed the cutoff when the Department of Education released the list of schools across the state it would pay for in the next budget cycle. Mavodones is convinced the schools would be near the top again when the state releases its next list of schools to get state construction aid in 2018.
He argues that it’s unlikely Portland could get started on any of the four schools before then anyway, and it would be “more prudent and worth it to put (Longfellow and Reiche) back into the state’s queue to see how we fare.”
“What I like about my plan is that it balances the needs of the students with the interests of the taxpayers,” Mavodones said. He also argued that there needs to be “more truth in the messaging” about the possible tax impacts from borrowing $61 million.
Those impacts could include reductions in the operating budgets for the schools in order to pay the debt service, as well as limited borrowing ability for the city to pay for a variety of other capital needs on both the school and municipal side for many more years to come.
However, those considerations did not have weight with the majority of the standing room-only crowd that filled the council chambers Jan. 19. Although there were a few dissenting voices, most of those who spoke last week urged the ad hoc committee to find some way to include upgrades at all four schools.
Resident Steve Weatherhead said all three of his children went through Reiche, which he described as a “ghetto-type building.”
“As a taxpayer I’m frustrated by study after study that all say the same thing: we have school buildings that must be brought up to (current) standards,” Weatherhead said.
John Eder, an at-large member of the School Board, said the city is turning its back on its children by not dealing with the facility issues. “Our schools are crumbling and badly in need of repair,” Ede said. “What are we saying if we only do the least we can do?”
Resident Justin Jaffey, who has a daughter at Longfellow, followed up Eder’s thoughts and said, “So far I’ve heard no good reason not to approve a bond for all four schools. We’ve been prudent to the point of neglect. We’ve not made a real investment in far too long and it’s obvious to anyone who’s paying attention.”
Another resident, Jessica Marino, said it’s finally time for tax dollars to go toward fixing the schools. “Many of these schools are the anchors for their communities, and strong schools are good for the entire city, but we need the investment. This is not just about a small group of parents who want fancy schools,” she said.
Seth Berner added, “We need to invest in the schools. We can’t keep putting this off. There is no better investment we can make.”
“We’ve talked and we’ve talked, (and now) we need to commit to our schools,” Katherine Hartnett said. “It’s important to keeping the community vibrant that we make this investment now and for the future.”
In summing up the work of the ad hoc committee, Strimling said, “I’m very pleased with the recognition that these schools have to be rebuilt. It’s clear to those who’ve examined the issue closely that these schools are a top priority.”
Although the mayor said he “always supported” the $70 million bond initially sent to the City Council, the $61 million approved by the ad hoc committee is “a good compromise. We found some savings that are not detrimental (to the schools) and that (balances) taxpayers’ (concerns).”
The end goal, he said, is to put the bond measure on the city ballot in June. “I believe the public will support it” and “a fair representation of the city” will turn out to vote.