Portland councilors have questions as work begins on school bond proposal

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PORTLAND — Needs and costs will be primary concerns of the ad-hoc committee of councilors and School Board members meeting Monday, July 25, to work on the proposed $70.6 million bond to renovate and repair four aging elementary schools.

The meeting begins at 5 p.m. in City Council chambers.

“It is very important we have clarity on this,” Councilor Nick Mavodones Jr. said in a 2 1/2-hour workshop Monday.

Getting the bond issue for work at Longfellow, Lyseth, Presumpscot and Reiche schools on the Nov. 8 ballot may be a long shot, since the council would have to vote to place it on the ballot by Sept. 7.

The ad-hoc committee, led by Mayor Ethan Strimling and School Board Chairwoman Marnie Morrione, received an extensive list of questions about design, enrollments – and especially, finances – from councilors Monday.

Joining Strimling and Morrione on the committee are Councilors Justin Costa, David Brenerman and Mavodones, plus School Board members Sarah Thompson, Anna Treverrow and Stephanie Hatzenbuehler.

Councilors at the meeting first reviewed the newest iteration of plans by Oak Point Associates, which has been consulting with the School Board for about five years on how to upgrade elementary schools ranging from more than 40 years to more than 60 years old.

“History can teach us and tell us Portland has struggled with its public school needs,” Morrione said. “It has grown to the magnitude that it can no longer wait or be fixed with capital improvement monies.”

Problems with capacity, security, storage, accessibility for students with disabilities abound, according to the Oak Point report, as does the need to upgrade the schools for new learning methods and technologies.

Estimates on the fixes, which could include adding new gym spaces and entire floors, are $20.21 million for Lyseth Elementary School at 157 Auburn St.; $17.9 million for Reiche Elementary School, 166 Brackett St.; $16.36 million for Longfellow Elementary School, 432 Stevens Ave., and $16.1 million for Presumpscot Elementary, 69 Presumpscot St.

The bond proposal forwarded by the School Board on June 21 seeks authorization to borrow up to $70.6 million, but the borrowing could be spread over five years to cover a work plan estimated to span eight years.

Although interest rates are historically low, Councilor Belinda Ray was skeptical of borrowing the $70.6 million at once, especially if it would prevent the city from receiving state construction aid.

The state Department of Education is funding all but $1.4 million of the $29.7 million cost to rebuild Fred P. Hall Elementary School. Morrione noted the DOE may be reviewing its list of statewide projects to fund, and the city could have to reapply for aid, but Ray held out the possibility that state aid could come within the time frame outlined in the Oak Point report.

Oak Point senior architect Tyler Barter said the work can be done while minimizing the effects on students in the classroom and would not require much relocation.

If the bond fails to make it onto the Nov. 8 ballot, Barter said a referendum held by February 2017 could still allow construction work to move forward as anticipated.

Where and how the debt service would fit into the city’s finances needs more study, councilors said.

Strimling has estimated debt service could add $35 annually to the tax bill on a home valued at $200,000. The current property tax rate is $21.11 per $1,000 of assessed value.

Former School Department Financial Officer Ellen Sanborn estimated the $70.6 million bond with a 30-year term could increase the school share of the tax rate from $10.33 per $1,000 of assessed value to $13.29 in fiscal year 2022.

Councilors want to be sure the public understands debt service on a bond creates tax increases above and beyond the school system operations budget and capital borrowing for other projects.

Councilor Jon Hinck said it is also important to determine what unmet needs there are in other city schools before embarking on improvements for the elementary schools.

“It raises the question, if we are going to belly up to the bar here, whether we have the all-in cost,” he said. “I know there are also other serious considerations we need to reckon with.”

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

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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.