Pair of Portland bond questions will decide future of 4 schools

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PORTLAND — Voters on Nov. 8 will have a choice between two bond questions to fund elementary school renovations and repairs.

The $64 million and $32 million referendum questions were placed on the ballot by city councilors Monday night, following about three hours of hearings and deliberations.

“I think it is time to get this done,” Councilor Justin Costa said.

Both bond questions were approved for the ballot by 8-1 votes. Councilor Spencer Thibodeau opposed the smaller bond question, while Councilor Belinda Ray opposed the larger one.

A third option – a $24 million bond proposed by Ray to renovate one elementary school and repair seven other city schools – was defeated 7-2, with Ray and Councilor Nick Mavodones in the minority.

Both borrowing proposals needed seven votes to get to the ballot, and the two questions have to be separate, under the City Charter.

The questions will each ask for yes or no votes, and would need majority votes for passage. If both questions are approved, the one with the greater percentage of affirmative votes will be enacted. A tie will go to the question that receives fewer negative votes.

The $64 million question would repair and renovate Longfellow, Lyseth, Presumpscot and Reiche elementary schools, following the recommendations made in the Buildings for Our Future template developed by Oak Point Associates. The $32 million proposal would pay only for work at Lyseth and Presumpscot.

The report has evolved over four years, but was the basis for a School Department request to the council for a $70 million bond last June. Mayor Ethan Strimling formed an ad hoc committee to study the report and the finances, conditions and demographics of the schools. He led the panel with School Board member Marnie Morrione.

In December, the ad hoc committee recommended a $61 million bond. The recommendation was opposed only by Council Nick Mavodones, who advocated the smaller bond that removed Longfellow and Reiche from the plan to instead see where the state Department of Education would place the schools on a new construction funding list.

In February, the proposal was increased to $64 million to incorporate projects at Longfellow and Reiche that were expected to be part of upcoming capital improvement plans that require bonding.

On March 20, the council deadlocked on votes to send bond questions to voters. The next day, Strimling and Councilor Jill Duson said they could back two bond questions as long as their preferences were headed to a ballot.

On March 31, Strimling and Mavodones announced they found a way to move both questions forward.

The compromise was viewed with distaste by Strimling and some councilors, and was opposed by Thibodeau.

“I can’t support this,” he said. “It is not because I don’t like compromise, it is because I like certainty.”

Saying the time to repair and renovate Reiche is overdue, Thibodeau agreed with members of the public who did not want wait for possible state funding because a new list may not be released until January 2019 and the potential competition has increased.

The School Department has applied for aid to renovate and repair all four elementary schools in question, as well as two high schools.

Strimling hammered the point home in his comments Monday, saying 57 new school projects are among 75 applications, making any certainty elusive, no matter how Reiche and Longfellow were ranked on prior lists.

The mayor also supports funding repairs for all four schools locally because any commitment to push for a new bond if the state refuses to release any funds could be moot because of changes on the council by 2019.

Duson said her support for a smaller bond was based on her duty to ensure all options were explored before increasing the property tax burden. Approving a bond to repair all four schools would void applications for state aid.

“I think we have to apply, we have to bring Portland dollars back to Portland,” she said.

Strimling was also critical of the voting process, saying two yes votes would cancel each other out, while Mavodones disagreed.

“Smart people in the city can figure this out and figure out the ballot,” Mavodones said.

While thanking Mavodones for his work, Strimling said the political reality is, the compromise was needed to move school renovations forward.

“This will be the last time I will be voting for this proposal and I will be doing everything I can to defeat (the smaller bond) at the ballot box,” Strimling said.

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

Longfellow Elementary School is one of four Portland public schools that would be renovated under a $64 million bond question going to voter in November.

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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.