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December 26th, 2007 12:00 am BETH SLOVIC | News Stories

Fuzzy Math

Until the school district shows its work, there are three problems with its billion-dollar list of fixes.

Show Your Work: A Texas firm has developed cost estimates for school repairs, but draft reports aren’t available for public inspection.
IMAGE: waltonportfolio.com

Portland Public Schools is about to go after what could be its largest-ever bond measure, a request that voters increase their property taxes to raise a portion of the $900 million to $1.4 billion the district says it needs for capital improvements.

At the high end, that’s three times the total annual cost of educating the 46,000 students in PPS, Oregon’s largest school district. At the low end, $900 million might come off looking like an after-Christmas sale compared to $1.4 billion.

Regardless of which number gets used, the bond would generate millions of dollars a year to repair or replace some or all of the buildings on the district’s approximately 90 campuses. And that’s a gift that keeps on giving—to children, to district employees, to engineers, to architects, to construction workers and to Magellan Consulting.

In May 2007, the Portland Public Schools’ board approved a $770,000 contract with Magellan, a Texas firm, to assess the condition of the district’s aging facilities. Five months later, in October, the board approved amending the contract for an additional $150,000 in public relations help, bringing the total award to $920,000.

The original contract was not to exceed $900,000, according to the board’s May resolution. Yet the extra $20,000 is chump change compared to the potential payoff from Magellan’s months of work.

But there are three stains on Portland Public Schools’ plans as they now stand:

◊Some say the urgency is misplaced, given lingering unrest over curriculum and school reconfigurations.

“I’m a little distressed that there’s all this stuff going on about facilities instead of what’s happening inside the buildings,” says Brandi Streeter a teacher at Peninsula School, a K-7 school transitioning to a K-8. “Kids need art and PE; they don’t necessarily need new buildings.”

◊District custodians question who will maintain the repairs school officials envision, given PPS’s historically low budgets for upkeep.

This is an especially bitter topic given the contentious and ongoing negotiations between the district and its 306 custodians with SEIU Local 503 (see “Cleaning Up,” WW , Oct. 17, 2007).

The district is currently hoping to cut some custodians’ salaries by as much as 34 percent. At the same time, it’s publicly decrying the fact that its maintenance workers are responsible for cleaning twice as much space as the average custodial worker—in buildings that are significantly older than their suburban counterparts.

“You haven’t maintained what you have,” says Kevin Test, a head custodian at DaVinci Arts Middle School who is asked to do more with less. “Are you going to maintain what you intend to get?”

◊The show pony for new schools in Portland is Rosa Parks Elementary, the only school built in this century in the Portland district. But it’s already overcrowded, even though it opened little more than a year ago.

Here’s another curious factor: Because the district contracted with Magellan, a private group that has proprietary methods for studying facilities, draft reports of Magellan’s work aren’t available for public inspection.

When Magellan representatives visited Portland earlier this month, they brought their data on their own computers, then took their computers home with them. Only the final study—of all 368 district buildings, including portables—will be made public. Not until January can the public scrutinize whether and how Magellan’s findings support a price tag of $900 million to $1.4 billion. Nonetheless, the plan is supposed to go before the School Board for review in March.

District officials are guarded when talking about the timing of the bond election. Months earlier, it appeared a sure thing for the November 2008 ballot. Only recently have administrators and School Board members backtracked; they now say a November bond measure is just a possibility.

“We’re marching forward in that hope, but until we get through the facilities conversation…we won’t be making any announcements or any decisions,” says School Board member Bobbie Regan.

School officials are, nonetheless, laying the groundwork for a new campaign to pay for some or all of the possible repairs Magellan has catalogued. Remember the Lincoln High School bleachers? They had to be closed in October, in the middle of football season, after Magellan raised safety concerns.

Now that question could be the new battle cry of the campaign for districtwide renovations that go way beyond Lincoln’s bleachers.

In November, the district held two community meetings at the Oregon Convention Center, where it promoted the idea of rebuilding. Equal parts evangelism and an energizing of the district’s voter base, the meetings were a cross between Mayor Tom Potter’s visionPDX and Sunday services at the Foursquare Church.

The goal was to lay out for the public the scope of the work ahead, say district officials.

“The whole point of this process is to be open and above board,” says district spokesman Matt Shelby.

Fact: If the School Board places a bond measure on the 2008 ballot, it would not be subject to double-majority restrictions. The last bond issue was in 1995 for $197 million, or between 75 cents and $1.01 per $1,000 of a property’s value.
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