PORTLAND — Hailing it as the “best news for Portland kids in a generation,” proponents of a $64.2 million, four-school renovation bond celebrated a decisive victory Tuesday.
“We’re thrilled,” said Emily Figdor, spokeswoman for the group Protect Our Neighborhood Schools, which campaigned in support of the borrowing plan that will now pay for substantial renovations and upgrades at four of the city’s elementary schools: Longfellow, Lyseth, Presumpscot and Reiche.
A second, $31.6 million bond referendum, which would have relied on state construction dollars for fixes at Longfellow and Reiche also passed, but the bond question with the most number of yes votes was the overall winner.
The four-school referendum, Question 3 on the city ballot, passed 13,742 to 7,445. Question 4, the two-school alternative, was approved 10,541 to 9,907, according to the city clerk’s office.
“We’re overjoyed” Figdor said following Tuesday’s vote. “Finally all of the elementary students in the city will have access to a safe, 21st century school.”
She called the vote “a testament to the power of the people to come together to make positive change,” adding, “we worked really hard to educate people about the condition of the elementary schools.”
For their part, those who advocated on behalf of the two-school bond said they’re proud of the grassroots campaign they ran over the past month.
Joanie Gildart, speaking on behalf of the group Better Schools, Better Deal, which supported the two-school bond, said, “I’m very proud of our campaign. It was truly grassroots and we were able to have a very candid and honest (discussion) to help people understand the issue.”
Although the two-school bond did not gain enough favor to win out over the four-school measure, Gildart said, “I’m very pleased, overall, especially since we had nowhere near the financial backing” of Protect Our Neighborhood Schools.
However, she also said, “We’re very disappointed because we lost out on a tremendous opportunity for state construction funds” for Reiche and Longfellow.
Members of Better Schools, Better Deal said they were always in full agreement that the four elementary schools were in need of upgrades; the issue was how to best pay for the necessary fixes.
Gildart called the $64.2 million bond “a big, big price tag,” for city residents to take on and said she’s concerned now about the impact on upcoming city and school operating budgets.
She also questioned the city’s ability to keep taxes affordable while carrying the four-school debt load.
But Figdor said the spending measure would only add about $8 a month to the tax bill for an average home and called that “a good investment. You can’t have a strong city without strong schools.”
In all, she said, Protect Our Neighborhood Schools knocked on more than 25,000 doors during the campaign and in just the last four days canvassers had been all across the city drumming up support.
She said specifics on how and when the bond money would be spent now goes to the School Board, which will also decide which school to tackle first.
A significant portion of Protect Our Neighborhood Schools’ campaign funding came from the group Progressive Portland, which gave $25,000 in support of the four-school bond.
“We were proud to be able to contribute energy and resources to Protect Our Neighborhood Schools to achieve a better learning environment for the city’s children,” Pat Washburn, Progressive Portland treasurer and steering committee member, said in a press release.
“Progressive Portland congratulates the parents, teachers and children of Portland for their work to pass the four-school bond tonight,” the release added.
In a joint statement, Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana and Anna Trevorrow, chairwoman of the School Board, said “(We) are deeply grateful to voters for approving the renovation of all four of the city’s aging elementary schools.”
“Not only are renovations at Longfellow, Lyseth, Presumpscot and Reiche critically needed because of accessibility and safety issues, but – most importantly – they’re also necessary to transform these schools into 21st century learning environments for our students,” the statement said.
“It takes a community to ensure that we meet our commitment of preparing our students to succeed in college and career,” Botana and Trevorrow added.
“Portland voters have always been generous and supportive of our schools, and they have once again shown their commitment to quality education for all our students,” the statement concluded.
Botana said the next step will be for the School Department to issue a request for proposals for architectural work “and to engage with the School Board, staff, families and the community concerning the order in which the projects will proceed.”
“That process will include the sequencing of the projects and the specific timeline for initiating and completing each renovation,” he said, adding that “we look forward to the day when all four elementary schools are finally up to 21st century learning standards.”
Members of Protect Our Neighborhood Schools at a rally last summer. The group supported a $64.2 million borrowing measure to fix four of Portland’s elementary schools.