Portland City Council to decide fate of $64M school bond

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PORTLAND — A City Council vote on a bond to renovate and upgrade four elementary schools has been a long time coming, and whether the $64 million question will appear on a ballot is still not certain.

In a City Hall meeting set to begin at 5:30 p.m. Monday, March 20, councilors will hold a public hearing on the bond before deciding whether to send the proposal to voters. Seven of the nine people on the council, which includes the mayor, must support the measure.

Councilors could send a smaller bond to voters. Increasing the amount would essentially restart the process, which was renewed four years ago when the School Department hired Oak Point Associates to revise the Buildings for Our Future plan. The plan now outlines how to repair and improve Longfellow, Lyseth, Presumpscot and Reiche Elementary schools.

Councilors Nick Mavodones, Jill Duson and Belinda Ray have all said they prefer a smaller bond by removing Longfellow and Reiche from the list until the state Department of Education prioritizes school construction funding.

“I am very firmly convinced the council has to look at all the rational options. We can’t go in pressured to consider one way of doing this,” Duson said Tuesday.

Mavodones, chairman of the City Council Finance Committee, was unable to attend the public hearing and committee vote on Feb. 23, when Councilors Justin Costa and Pious Ali recommended the bond and forwarded it to the full council.

Duson said she and Mavodones are working out details for a smaller bond proposal to keep the potential for state aid viable while still meeting the time frame of the renovations in a $64 million bond.

Ray said she may also present a decreased bond proposal.

School Superintendent Xavier Botana will apply for state aid for each school. Duson and Mavodones believe a report on school facilities by Sebago Technics indicates Longfellow and Reiche could place within the top six for state consideration. Passage of a local bond to rebuild schools automatically eliminates state funding options, but the Sebago Technics report is not based on revised scoring data by the state Department of Education.

“I firmly believe we will get one school out of the state,” Duson said.

While Mavodones, Ray and Duson advocate a smaller bond to start, Mayor Ethan Strimling and five councilors support the $64 million bond, a product of deliberations and study that began last summer after the School Board forwarded a bond request of $70 million.

Councilor David Brenerman is among those who do not have as much faith in the state process, noting the city has applied for aid for the schools several times to no avail.

Strimling formed an ad hoc committee he led with School Board member Marnie Morrione. Split evenly with councilors and board members, the committee toured schools, reviewed finances, enrollment data and demographics before recommending a $61 million bond in December that scaled back the addition of second stories and square footage in planned gyms.

The council Finance Committee then added $3.3 million to fund work at Longfellow and Reiche elementary schools that was once part of future municipal capital improvements budgets.

A $64 million bond authorization would be spent in stages, and would cost $92 million with debt service included. City Finance Director Brendan O’Connell estimated the bond would add $1,128 to a property tax bill for each $100,000 of valuation over the life of the bonds. The city property tax rate at present is $21.10 per $1,000 of assessed value.

Supporters of the $64 million bond have mobilized as well. Emily Figdor, of  Protect Our Neighborhood Schools, and chairwoman of the Portland Democratic City Committee, announced March 10 that more than 100 business owners support the bond.

Figdor’s husband, Steven Biel, signed the letter to city councilors advocating the full bond amount. On Sunday, members of Progressive Portland, which he co-founded, went door-to-door to drum up support.

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

Portland City Hall, 389 Congress St.

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.