Portland voters to choose between competing school bonds

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PORTLAND — A definitive finding of mold at one elementary school included in a multimillion-dollar bond question could have an impact on how the vote goes this fall.

On Nov. 7 city voters will be asked to decide between two questions.

Question No. 3 seeks borrowing $64.2 million to pay for substantial renovations and upgrades at four of the city’s elementary schools: Longfellow, Lyseth, Reiche and Presumpscot.

The other question, No. 4 on the ballot, asks voters if they would rather spend $31.6 million to only tackle Lyseth and Presumpscot.

Choosing that option would then leave the School Department to apply for state funds for fixes at Longfellow and Reiche.

If both bonds are approved, then the measure with the most “yes” votes will prevail.

Protect Our Neighborhood Schools is actively campaigning for approval of the $64 million bond to fix all four schools.

But last week a new political group was formed to push for the second, less-expensive question.

That group, Better Schools, Better Deal, argues that by waiting for state construction funds, the city would ultimately be on the hook for less money while still addressing the issues at all four of the elementary schools.

Dory Richards Waxman, spokeswoman for the two-school bond, admitted Monday that her group got a late start, with early voting already underway and Election Day less than a month away.

However, she said, “We are going to do the best we can in the time we have to cut through the noise and share helpful and factual information with voters.”

The ultimate question, Waxman said, is “are voters willing to give up the very real likelihood of receiving state funding in 2018 for two new schools?

“We don’t think they’ll want to commit to paying double for four renovations when we are less than nine months away (from) knowing whether the state will fund two schools.”

Waxman also said the Better Schools, Better Deal group will be substantially outspent on this campaign.

“We think Maine voters are pretty good at recognizing common sense solutions,” she said, “even in a busy election season.”

But the mold found last week at Longfellow Elementary could pose a “potentially serious health risk for students and staff,” according to Emily Figdor, spokeswoman for Protect Our Neighborhood Schools.

She used that discovery as proof that Longfellow and Reiche schools can’t wait any longer for state funding, although a letter to parents from Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana said the School Department doesn’t think the mold is a hazard, nor is it airborne.

In support of passing the four-school bond, Figdor said all of the buildings “lack the physical space and infrastructure to meet current educational standards.”

In addition, she said, all four of the schools “were built in the mid-1900s, have never been renovated and the city has deferred maintenance on the buildings year after year.”

Figdor said it’s time for the city to do something about all four schools, especially since “students are being taught in hallways, custodial closets, mechanical closets and dilapidated trailers.”

She said providing modern, updated school buildings is also essential because the condition of “school facilities have a profound impact on student outcomes.”

Schools affect students’ health, behavior, self-esteem, engagement, learning and achievement, Figdor argued. “Students who attend new or updated schools report feeling safer, more proud and better enjoy school,” she said.

To the argument that Portland could save a significant amount of money by only borrowing money for two schools, Figdor said, “School capital costs are a local responsibility.”

The state “isn’t going to fix our schools for us,” she said. “The state has rejected Portland’s requests to pay to renovate the four schools for 16 years.”

Figdor also said it’s less likely than many people realize that the state will agree to release construction funds for Longfellow and Reiche.

That’s especially true, she said, since the state recently built the new Ocean Avenue and East End Community schools and is now building a new Hall School.

“We finally have the chance to fix our schools because parents and the community came together over the last two years to make it happen,” Figdor said. “It’s finally time for action to fix all four schools. We need to get our priorities straight as a city and invest in our schools.”

Not surprisingly, Figdor believes the two-school bond “has very little support.”

In a recent poll conducted by the Maine Education Association, which has provided funding for Protect Our Neighborhood Schools, “a solid majority of likely Portland voters support the $64 million bond to fix all four schools,” Figdor said.

On the other hand, she said, the survey shows that “only 24 percent of Portland voters prefer the competing $32 million, two-school bond.”

“These results are similar to what we’ve seen consistently in polling since 2013,” Figdor said. “Voters simply don’t think it’s fair to fix some schools and not others.”

In response to the creation of Better Schools, Better Deal, Figdor said, “We’re saddened to see this new campaign that is clearly intended only to confuse voters.”

“The ballot is already very tricky,” she said. “And now this new campaign is muddying the waters further … and falsely claiming to deliver the same result.”

Waxman, however, said “for me, this is about getting Portland the best schools for the best deal.”

“Over the past several months I have grown increasingly concerned about the high cost and missed opportunity for new schools that will result if we pass the four-school repair bond,” she added.

In its new fact sheet, Better Schools, Better Deal makes the case that “The 2+2 school bond is a much better deal for Portland” because it means the city would get “two renovations plus two new schools, at half the cost to taxpayers.”

In addition, the fact sheet states, by passing the two-school bond, the city could “preserve our future borrowing capacity and prevent cuts to teaching positions and city services,” while remaining on the same construction schedule as the four-school bond.

“Voting yes on Question 4 is not just about getting our children better schools, it’s about making smart financial decisions that keep taxes low and Portland affordable for young families and retirees,” Waxman said.

And, she said, Better Schools, Better Deal agrees “there is absolutely no question or debate that these four elementary schools need to be updated. The decision we need to be focused on is how best to pay for it.”

“The (two-school) bond is a win-win for students and taxpayers. It’s really as simple as that.”

Waxman also called supporting the two-school bond, “the most common-sense approach to achieving our shared objective of fixing four elementary schools.”

“This is a big investment and the numbers aren’t small – $92 million versus $46 million total cost to taxpayers over the life of the bonds.”

In a memo provided to the City Council this spring, Brendan O’Connell, Portland’s finance director, anticipated that the $64 million bond would add about $104 to the annual tax rate for a home valued at $240,000.

The nearly $32 million bond for a two-school solution, would likely be about half that, O’Connell said, or $52 in additional taxes.

“Why would we pay double for four renovated schools,” Waxman said, “when we can cut our tax burden in half and get two new schools in the process?”

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

A school bus drops off students at Reiche Elementary School in Portland Tuesday, Oct. 10. The fate of the school will be decided in a citywide referendum Nov. 7.

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