Portland City Council backing for school renovation bond not a given

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PORTLAND — A proposal to borrow $70 million for renovations at four elementary schools faces a tough sell at the City Council.

The School Board voted 6-2 June 21 to recommend the proposed bond referendum to fund renovations to Reiche, Lyseth, Lincoln and Presumpscot schools to the council, with members Laurie Davis and Stephanie Hatzenbuehler opposed and Pious Ali absent. The repairs were outlined in the 2013 study “Buildings for Our Future” and subsequent updates.

But before it goes to referendum, the plan needs at least seven of nine council votes. At the School Board meeting, Mayor Ethan Strimling and Councilors Justin Costa and Spencer Thibodeau spoke in favor of moving the proposal forward.

Strimling, who has supported the proposal in the past, implored the board to “force the City Council” to consider it. Strimling said the city can’t wait for the state to fund the renovations.

“I’m simply asking you to  give the voters the say,” Strimling said.

Costa, who was on the board when the building study was published, also asked the board to move forward with the proposal, although he said the conversation “needs to happen between all of us,” and not just one body of government.

He said by delaying the conversation, the city would be buying higher construction costs and interest rates.

Thibodeau told the board to make the “easy decision” and let the voters decide whether to raise taxes and pay for the renovations.

But since the council is made up of eight councilors and Strimling, and the bond referendum requires seven affirmative votes, there is a slim margin for error.

Councilor Belinda Ray, a member of the council finance committee, said she has concerns with the proposal and believes the $70 million cost is too high.

“I am not certain that due diligence has been done and I would not be in favor of putting a bond in front of the voters that hasn’t been researched meticulously,” Ray said.

Ray said she wants to see a comprehensive plan for all city schools. She said money had been budgeted for a study, and to proceed without one would be “premature.”

Ray also said she has concerns about repercussions for future school budgets that could lead to cuts in staff, and about “leaving a lot of state money on the table.”

If passed by referendum, the projects would not be eligible to receive state funding.

“I just don’t think they have looked out far enough to see what’s next,” Ray said.

Prior to last week’s board vote, Councilor Ed Suslovic, who is also on the finance committee, said he hoped the council and board could work together on a joint recommendation. He said in the past, both bodies of government had embraced maximizing the potential for state aid.

“So that to me is the kind of strategy and kind of outcome we all should be working towards,” Suslovic said.

Councilor David Brenerman on Monday said he and other councilors have questions they want answered before the council moves forward with a recommendation. Brenerman said he wants to know what taxpayers can afford,  how long the projects would take, opportunities for state funding, and what the plan is for other schools.

“So I think probably everybody in the council would support renovations for the schools, (but) the question is, the level of renovations that are needed and how that fits in the education program, and also what’s affordable,” Brenerman said.

Brenerman said just because he’ll be asking questions when the matter comes before the council doesn’t mean he’s against making repairs. He said he’s not looking at the $70 million yet, but instead said the council should look at the need, while keeping in mind the city also has capital needs that include maintaining public buildings, streets and sidewalks.

Brenerman said an issue like this would typically get referred to the finance committee, although the council may schedule a workshop to help that committee answer questions.

“This should be the subject of a number of meetings,” he said.

The building study also outlined renovations to the Fred P. Hall Elementary School. However, that school was placed on the Department of Education’s Major Capital Construction Approved Projects List, meaning it was eligible to receive state funding. In April, voters approved the nearly $30 million plan to replace the school. Roughly $1.4 million will be borrowed, with the rest coming from the state.

And while it is possible the remaining schools could receive state funding, School Board members and others said they are skeptical that will happen, given the remaining schools are much further down the list than Hall was.

At several board meetings, members of the public have largely supported the renovations proposal. A citizen group called Protect Our Neighborhood Schools has been working to get the item on the November ballot.

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

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Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.