Portland panel prepares to scrutinize proposed school bond

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PORTLAND — Members of an ad hoc committee assigned to review a $70.6 million bond proposal to rebuild four city elementary schools are ready for more work, beginning with a July 18 City Council workshop.

“I am extremely hopeful we will continue to move forward. I have been on the board eight years and we have been working on it eight years,” School Board Chairwoman Marnie Morrione said July 8.

Morrione and Mayor Ethan Strimling are leading the committee Strimling established with Councilor Nick Mavodones Jr.

“This is a big deal, and we need to be sure to get it right on a lot of levels, especially for our kids,” Strimling said Monday.

Forwarded to the council by the School Board on June 21, the bond proposal culminates months of study on how to bring Longfellow, Lyseth, Presumpscot and Reiche elementary schools up to modern standards for facilities and learning.

“What I would love is for the committee to have a fair and deep understanding of optimal teaching and learning environments,” committee member Stephanie Hatzenbuehler said July 8. “(But) we also have a fiduciary responsibility to the school district.”

Morrione, Hatzenbuehler, Anna Trevorrow and Sarah Thompson are the School Board members of the committee. Strimling, Mavodones and Councilors Justin Costa and David Brenerman represent the City Council.

“I wanted a balance,” Strimling said. “I wanted people who have a lot of experience with our schools and city government.”

The first step is for School Board members to outline the bond proposal and the updated “Buildings for Our Future” evaluation by consultants Oak Point Associates. The report released in March details conditions at the schools and the potential costs for renovations and repairs.

“It is to ensure we can answer all the questions around the bond,” Morrione said, “and to ensure if there are any questions that have not been answered, they are done expeditiously.”

Following the workshop, the ad hoc committee will review the proposal. Any revisions or new recommendations will first be sent back to the School Board, then forwarded to the council Finance Committee Mavodones leads.

The proposed bond is split into $20.21 million for work at 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.

“None of the schools has had significant improvements in the approximately half century since they were built,” School Department spokeswoman Tess Nacelewicz noted in a July 7 press release.

Physical conditions at Reiche have deteriorated this year, with leaks in the library and the removal of an unsafe concrete ramp leading to the school’s Clark Street entrance.

Cost estimates to repair and renovate each of the schools have escalated between $4 million and $5 million from the original project budgets drafted in 2013. It was anticipated then that the state Department of Education would pay for work at Longfellow.

School Board members have not ruled out seeking state aid for the work, which could be spread out over the next eight years.

The bond proposal sought to have the question on the Nov. 8 ballot, but the process of deliberations significantly reduces the chance of a bond making the ballot, according to ad hoc committee members.

The bond proposal would have to be placed on the ballot by councilors 60 days before the election. That means a public hearing and council vote must be held by the Sept. 7 meeting.

Costa said he would like a vote on a bond proposal by spring 2017 because of the upcoming construction season. Others agreed the process is more important than the timing.

“I think we always had the November ballot in mind because it was the next referendum date, but it never informed getting to a decision too quickly,” Hatzenbuehler said.

The cost could change, too, and Hatzenbuehler and Morrione said they welcome input that could cover areas the School Board may not have considered.

City debt has been an increased factor in budget discussions as councilors have tried to limit borrowing to match retiring debt in the annual capital improvements budgets. That has limited borrowing to around $12 million for city and school projects and equipment.

This year’s near $14 million CIP budget did not increase the property tax rate. Annual repayment of a $112 million, 25-year note purchased in 2001 to meet city obligations to the Maine State Retirement system did, adding $12.9 million in debt service.

The “credit swap,” as former city and school Finance Director Ellen Sanborn called it, has saved the city money over the years, but repayment has become more expensive. The interest rate is 8.9 percent, and debt service will reach $15.4 million by fiscal year 2020. The note will not be paid off until 2026.

City Finance Director Brendan O’Connell has estimated $12 million in borrowing leaves an $7 million annual gap in capital needs for the city and its schools, and that gap does not include bonding for school repairs, shifting Department of Public Works operations from Bayside to a campus on Canco Road, or the local $1.4 million local share to replace Hall Elementary School.

Voters approved a $29.7 million bond to build a new school, mostly with state funds, in April.

Ad hoc committee members believe the need for school improvements is well established.

“If we are able to do the four schools, we will have seven schools that are state of the art and will transform education in our city,” Strimling said.

The comprehensive approach is needed as much, and overdue, Costa said.

“We should have done this several years ago,” he said.

Along with the end result of moving school repairs and renovations forward, Hatzenbuehler hoped the committee could set the stage for better overall future planning.

“In this process, since January, it occurred to me we don’t have as solid a process as we do for moving the budget,” she said.

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

Left: Longfellow School, 432 Stevens Ave., Portland. Estimated renovation and repair costs are $16.36 million. Right: Reiche School, 166 Brackett St. Estimated renovation and repair costs are $17.9 million.

Left: Lyseth School, 157 Auburn St. in Portland. Estimated renovation and repair costs are $20.21 million. Right: Presumpscot School, 69 Presumpscot St. Estimated renovation and repair costs are $16.1 million.

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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.