Portland may have to compromise on school facilities bond

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PORTLAND — The leaders of an ad hoc committee determining the best way to address elementary school facility needs this week said they are committed to a four-school bond.

However, whether the rest of the panel agrees with School Board member Marnie Morrione and Mayor Ethan Strimling – and would be willing to support a nearly $70.6 million bond that would add 70 cents per $1,000 of assessed value to the property tax – is unknown.

The committee is set to meet again at 5 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 22, in council chambers at City Hall. The meeting is open to the public, but no comment will be taken during the work session.

The ultimate goal of the School Facilities Ad Hoc Committee, which was created last summer and includes four members from the city and four from the School Board, is to make a recommendation on a bond package likely to be sent to voters in June.

There is still a lengthy process necessary before a borrowing plan can make it to the ballot, including a public hearing before the ad hoc committee, a vote at the School Board level, a review by the City Council Finance Committee, and a public hearing and vote at the council level.

Last week, city leaders learned definitively that the state will not pay for any of the school facility upgrades, which means the entire cost will fall on local taxpayers.

Strimling and City Councilor David Brenerman said the decision by the state Board of Education not to fund the facility needs at Reiche and Longfellow schools was not a surprise, since the two schools just missed the cutoff for the Department of Education’s school project funding list. 

“At this point we need to make a decision,” Strimling said Dec. 19. “I certainly will not accept anything other than the four schools” bond package. However, the mayor also said he would be willing to support a compromise that would reduce the total cost of the borrowing by $10.8 million.

That would reduce the impact to the tax rate by 10 or 11 cents per $1,000, ad hoc committee members were told at their meeting in mid-November.

Strimling would prefer the full $70.6 million bond go to voters because it “would better meet the needs” at the schools in question, which also include Lyseth and Presumpscot. However, he said he could also “live with (the proposed reduction) to get to a consensus.”

But Brenerman said there’s still a lot for the ad hoc committee to discuss, and his priority is to end up with an affordable plan “that addresses the significant issues at each school.”

“It has to be affordable,” Brenerman said, and “at this point I’m not sure what that looks like.”

But, like Strimling and Morrione, he also doesn’t see moving ahead with any plan that would leave out any of the four schools.

“The important thing is to make a commitment to (all four) schools,” Brenerman said. “We need to be thoughtful and get this right. There are still lots of questions, and if it takes another meeting to get to the finish line, we should do that. I’m not sure where everybody is or whether they’re ready to vote.”

Ultimately, he said, “We’re hoping to find a (dollar) amount that is satisfactory to the school board and the council. At this point the renovations are badly needed and long overdue.”

Anna Trevorrow, the new chairwoman of the School Board, agreed with Brenerman, for the most part. “The ad hoc committee is a fair place to raise alternative plans (because) it forces a conversation to be had about the best way forward,” she said.

“For myself, I am not convinced that dropping schools from the plan would make it more palatable to voters. Certainly all the schools have needs,” Trevorrow added.

And while Strimling is now committed to funding significant renovations at all four schools, he also said “public input will, of course, be an important part of” the decision-making process.

“What I’ve heard is that overwhelmingly the public wants (upgrades) to all four schools,” Strimling said. “There’s very strong support in the community.”

The schools range in age from 40-60 years old and, other than a recent $800,000 project at Reiche, significant funds have not been invested in any of the buildings since they were constructed – at least according to the group Protect Our Neighborhood Schools.

Emily Figdor, one of the founders of the group, said this week that all four schools “lack the physical space and infrastructure needed to meet 21st century education standards.”

“We want all four schools to be finally dealt with,” Figdor said, adding that the ad hoc committee is the seventh task force in the past 20 years or more to look into facility needs at the city’s oldest elementary schools.

“We need to step up,” and make these schools a priority, she said. “We are completely committed to four schools in one bond. It’s finally time to get this done and stop passing the buck.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.