Half of recently surveyed voters in Portland said the state's largest school district didn't do a good job of managing its finances, according to Portland Public Schools.
But Superintendent Carole Smith put forward a new plan Monday to ask Portlanders to raise their property taxes to support public education for 47,000 students anyway. The hit for the average property owner in the school district would be about $300 to $350 per year.
That new plan, if approved by the Portland School Board on Dec. 13, calls for a six-year, $548 million construction bond measure on the May 2011 ballot. The goal? To rebuild or renovate all of PPS's 85 campuses now that the district has finally settled its long-awaited high-school redesign with the closure of Marshall.
Smith's announcement Monday got a round of applause from School Board members, meaning it's unlikely the members (some of whom come up for re-election on the same May 2011 ballot) will reject Smith's plan next month when it returns to them for a formal vote.
So, what will the plan accomplish? And why?
Two months ago, PPS commissioned a $21,600 poll by the research firm Davis, Hibbitts & Midghall to weigh voters' support for a possible tax measure. The results of the poll suggest 62 percent of voters are likely to support construction bonds in the neighborhood of $500 million. Only 30 percent of surveyed voters said they would reject a measure of such magnitude.
"In this economy, people care about jobs and education," says Adam Davis, firm partner and the school district's pollster. And the district's proposed measure, which would create an as yet unknown number of construction jobs beginning next summer, combines both themes.
There were several other reasons for which respondents said they would support a tax hike, and those reasons are reflected in the design of the superintendent's plan.
Surveyed voters said they put a high priority on making major renovations to the buildings that need urgent repairs first. As a result, Marysville K-8 School, which burned in a devastating fire last November, forcing students to relocate to the mothballed Rose City Park Elementary School, will be rebuilt ahead of any other school, Smith says.
Seven other schools, including Roosevelt, Jefferson and Cleveland high schools, plus Faubion, Laurelhurst, Markham and Rigler primary schools, will also get full renovations. Lincoln High School, which sits inside the boundaries of Mayor Sam Adams' newly proposed urban renewal zone, would get new architectural designs with money from the bond issue.
But to appeal to voters in all neighborhoods, not just the ones with buildings in the worst condition, PPS plans to offer upgrades at all 85 campuses. Those universal improvements would include new, modern doors that open with key cards and additional accessibility for disabled students.
Thirty-seven schools with middle-school grades would get new science labs, and 33 elementary schools would get covered playgrounds (but no guarantees the district will keep physical education programs amid dwindling operations budgets).
The school district's last capital improvement measure came in 1995 and largely paid for seismic upgrades at school. Yet many of Portland's schools date to the World War II era and earlier, making them on average 60 to 65 years old.
"Anyone needs a face-lift after 65 years, I think," says Pam Knowles, co-chairwoman of the Portland School Board.
If approved by voters, the $548 million bond measure would probably be only the first in a series of measures in the next 20 to 30 years. Smith says her goal is to persuade voters to approve new construction until all of the district's schools have received the overhauls the district says they need.
The Portland School Board will hold a public hearing on the proposed bond measure Dec. 1. The board will then vote Dec. 13 whether to forward the measure to voters in May.