Portland School Board unanimously approves elementary schools bond

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PORTLAND — The School Board voted 9-0 Tuesday to support a nearly $61 million bond that would fund substantial improvements at four of the city’s elementary schools.

The measure now goes to the City Council for further review.

Known as the Buildings for Our Future plan, the spending would be applied to Longfellow, Lyseth, Presumpscot and Reiche schools, if eventually approved by voters in a June referendum.

The intent is to transform the four schools into what the proposal calls “21st century centers of learning for outstanding academic achievement; to ensure each elementary school has up-to-date security systems; and to preserve existing neighborhood schools.”

Borrowing would be spread over six years, which would lead to an increase of about $148 in property taxes for city residents over that time, according to figures provided Tuesday by Mayor Ethan Strimling.

Strimling acknowledged that the bond represents “a significant investment,” but also argued it’s “very clear these changes are needed” and said upgrading the four schools would “transform the city of Portland.”

He called the School Board vote “one more step in the right direction” toward getting the schools modernized and said making the investment would be “an opportunity to leave a lasting legacy that creates equity and funds critical improvements.”

Only a handful of people spoke at Tuesday’s special board meeting, and all spoke in favor of the $61 million bond. Many made the same points that have been made during the past eight months since the board initially requested a $70.5 million bond package.

Supporters say the schools badly need to be renovated and expanded, and the School Department has already funded several studies that prove the investment is needed.

Emily Figdor, spokeswoman for the group Protect Our Neighborhood Schools, summed up that sentiment Tuesday when she said the bond would “have a big impact on the success of education and on economic development. It’s important to our neighborhoods and to making the city stronger.”

An ad hoc committee that included four board members, three city councilors and the mayor spent several months going over the bond proposal. Last month the committee recommended the $61 million spending measure 7-1, with Councilor Nick Mavodones casting the only opposition vote.

Although the original request has been reduced by about $10 million, the spending still “satisfies the needs of the schools,” according to School Board member Marnie Morrione, who co-chaired the ad hoc committee along with Strimling.

In discussing the bond, School Board members said they understand the concern that borrowing will increase taxes, but also argued that upgrading the four schools is long overdue.

“Study after study has told us we have to invest,” board member Sarah Thompson said. “I understand the tax concern, but it’s time we renovate.”

Member John Eder added the proposal has been “vetted as much as it can be.”

And Jenna Vendil said, “This has been a long time coming and we need to take this step forward.”

Although the School Board unanimously approved the borrowing measure, member Holly Seeliger cautioned, “It’s not over yet. I would like to thank those who didn’t lose hope and who continued to advocate.”

She urged those who support the bond to make their opinion known to the City Council in the weeks ahead.

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

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