Portland school bond undecided after 6-hour debate

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PORTLAND — Supporters of a $64 million bond to repair and upgrade four elementary schools will get another vote March 27 after the City Council failed to endorse the proposal Monday.

Six councilors, including Mayor Ethan Strimling, favor the $64 million bond. They turned aside two proposals for less borrowing from Councilors Jill Duson, Nick Mavodones and Belinda Ray during a hearing and debate that lasted about six hours in City Hall.

Bond questions require approval from seven councilors, but following the 6-3 vote on the $64 million bond, a failed motion by Duson to reconsider actually put the question back into play because it had not been officially killed. For now, it remains “unfinished business.”

Duson, firm in her support for a bond of half the proposed amount, said Tuesday she wants voters to have more than one choice of how to fund repairs to Longfellow, Lyseth, Presumpscot and Reiche elementary schools.

But she said she could become the seventh affirmative vote if the referendum ballot offers the choice of two bonds.

Strimling on Tuesday said his goal is to get the schools repaired and upgraded, and that means getting the bond question to voters. While he has not seen a joint bond question yet, Strimling said he would be willing to consider it.

Strimling would also like to hear more public comment March 27. Monday’s public hearing lasted more than three hours, and about 90 percent of the more than 60 speakers supported the $64 million bond.

Duson said she hoped for more of a delay in resuming the debate, perhaps to have another workshop or subcommittee discussion.

“We need to get to something,” she said. “None of us want an all-or-nothing choice here.”

On Monday, Ray was the only supporter of her motion for a $24 million bond question to repair Lyseth and attend to needs at seven other city schools.

“We need to remember we have 17 (schools) and we have great need,” Ray said, citing a facilities report that found $321 million in needs over the next 20 years.

Mavodones and Duson proposed a $32 million bond that would have repaired and upgraded Lyseth and Presumpscot, while holding off on funding repairs and upgrades at Longfellow and Reiche. The proposal would have allowed the city to see where the state Department of Education might place them on a revised list for school construction funding.

The rest of the council remained firmly in support of the full bond question to take care of a variety of needs at the schools, which range in age from 45 years to about 65 years old.

“These four schools have remained the same; they have not been modernized to address today’s and tomorrow’s education model,” Councilor David Brenerman said. 

Among members of the public, support for the highest bond amount was strong.

“I think 20 years of dialogue is probably about enough,” said Ben Howland, a parent of a Longfellow student. “(We are) not asking the City Council to write a check, we are asking them to put it to the people.”

The $64 million bond was first forwarded to councilors as a $71 million package in June 2016. Strimling then established an ad hoc committee of four councilors and four School Board members to study the bond question. It was reduced by $10 million in December 2016, then $3.3 million was added back last month.

The School Board has remained firmly behind the maximum bond amount, and board members Marnie Morrione, Sarah Thompson and Roberto Rodriguez all expressed individual support for the bond Monday.

Rodriguez said the bond would provide a good return on the investment in schools by attracting new families to the city.

A $64 million bond authorization with borrowing and repayment over 26 years would result in a total of $92 million in principal and interest. Strimling and supporters said that amounts to an average cost of $8.67 per month for a property valued at $240,000, or about the cost of a weekly cup of coffee.

Those concerned about the debt said it should not be viewed outside the context of other city financial needs and the anticipated increases in the present property tax rate of $21.10 per $1,000 of assessed value.

“Who doesn’t want to see our schools repaired,” Glenwood Road resident Joan Gildart asked. “The nugget is, how we are going to pay for it? It does not become a cup of coffee a week, it becomes much more than that.”

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

Portland City Councilors Jill Duson, left, Nick Mavodones and Belinda Ray tried unsuccessfully Monday to have reduced school bonds sent to referendum. Their position prevented the council from approving a $64 million borrowing proposal.

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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.