Portland school bond gets hearing; council grapples with finances

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PORTLAND — How much voters will be asked to borrow for school renovations may become clearer Thursday when the ad hoc committee studying a bond question will hold a public hearing before recommending an amount to the School Board.

From there, the bond would return to the City Council and the council’s Finance Committee, which will be taking a wider view of city needs.

The committee began its review last summer of the $70.6 million bond proposal forwarded to the City Council by the School Board to upgrade and renovate Longfellow, Lyseth, Presumpscot and Reiche Elementary Schools.

Last month, Mayor Ethan Strimling and School Board member Marnie Morrione, the committee co-chairs, suggested a reduced, $61 million bond. But on Jan. 9, Strimling said he favors the full, original bond amount.

“For far too long, we have deferred the decision to invest in our elementary schools,” he said.

The ad hoc committee – which includes Councilors Nick Mavodones Jr., Justin Costa and David Brenerman, along with School Board Chairwoman Anna Treverrow, and members Sarah Thompson and Stephanie Hatzenbuehler – have reviewed the Buildings for Our Future study by Oak Point Associates.

The report and a tour produced a stark picture at the schools, which range in age from about 45 years to 65 years old. Common and unique problems at each school include overcrowding, antiquated mechanical systems, and pupils studying in outmoded portable buildings or classrooms.

The lack of an elevator at Longfellow School on Stevens Avenue keeps pupils with mobility issues from using upper floors. The open concept at Reiche School on Brackett Street leads to noise, which inhibits teaching students with specialized needs.

Students at Presumpscot and Lyseth Elementary use modular buildings, and gym classes are hampered because the spaces are also used as cafeterias.

The overall desire is to create modern, equitable opportunities that can bring the schools in line with the Ocean Avenue Elementary School and the new Hall School.

Deputy City Manager Anita LaChance estimates the $61 million bond would add between 14 and 18 cents to the city tax rate annually through fiscal year 2022.

The city property tax rate is now $21.11 per $1,000 of assessed value, and Strimling said Jan. 9 he does not want an overall increase of more than 2.5 percent, or about 53 cents for the next budget.

Thursday’s public hearing is at 5:30 p.m. at City Hall. But before the school bond returns to the Finance Committee, its members will review the capital improvements budget for next year.

City Finance Director Brendan O’Connell estimated the city has to keep its borrowing at $12.8 million to avoid any tax rate increases. City Manager Jon Jennings has received $59 million in bonding requests from city departments.

Also looming are the annual payments on a 2001 note used to pay pensions which will balloon over the next decade. Debt service on the note next year is $13.6 million, which adds 10 cents to the tax rate. In 2022, the debt service will be $17.4 million, and the cumulative effect on the city tax rate will be 59 cents in those four years.

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

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.