Portland Public Schools is proceeding slowly on a $790 million capital bond measure to address safety problems and rebuild decrepit schools.
The district's bond committee is poised to place the measure—the largest in Oregon history—on the May 16 ballot.
However, despite the unprecedented size of the request PPS is about to send to voters, the bond commitee dawdled in making one of the key strategic decisions needed for a successful trip to the ballot: choosing a political consultant.
The contract, awarded Jan. 23, is crucial because the troubled district has a complex story to tell voters after the resignation of Superintendent Carole Smith amid the lead scandal.
But the committee made its choice many months later than might be expected. And the bond campaign committee picked a consultant who's already notorious for billing $11,000 for a nine-page spreadsheet.
In fact, the winning consultant, Jeremy Wright, submitted the only bid to run the May campaign. He declined to disclose terms.
Wright successfully ran a campaign to renew a Portland school levy in 2014 and a $291 million bond campaign for the Gresham Barlow School District last year.
He also made news when WW reported last year that he'd received a no-bid contract from PPS to produce analysis of previous bond elections. In December, a PPS investigator found that then-district spokesman Jon Isaacs had awarded Wright the contract without any due diligence.
Portland School Board Chairman Tom Koehler says the investigation into Wright's spreadsheet contract found "some internal issues with contracting" but no wrongdoing on Wright's part. He acknowledges no other consultant bid for the 2017 bond contract but says, "We went out and hired the best person for the job."
"Jeremy has the current best track record of any consultant on local Portland region school bond measures," Koehler says. "He's passed them in tough places that have rejected them by wide margins previously."
Wright says he did what he was asked on the spreadsheet. As for the bond campaign, he says the quality of the health, safety and construction package PPS has created will be the key to success.
"You always want more time," Wright says, "but this bond will touch every school, and that's more important than any campaign calendar."
Several leading political consultants, including Mark Wiener, Liz Kaufman,Kevin Looper, Jake Weigler and Paige Richardson, did not bother submitting proposals for the work.
Richardson ran a bond campaign for the Beaverton School District in 2014 that raised $680 million. Like her peers, however, she passed on the most lucrative assignment on the May ballot.
"Having worked on the Beaverton bond, I'm aware what it takes to do something like that," Richardson says. "It was a little bit of a late start, and that raised some red flags with me."
Kaufman, who ran the campaign for a $433 million bond measure in the North Clackamas School District last year, says it's a mistake to appear on the May ballot, which typically draws a low turnout and more conservative voters.
She says North Clackamas spent 24 months educating voters, something PPS has not done. "They are in bad shape with the public. People are most concerned about safety, and it's only 20 percent of the bond," Kaufman says. "I just don't know how to tell that story."
The Portland School Board was set to refer the bond issue to the ballot Feb. 28, after WW press deadlines.
The bond proposal likely to be referred would include $348 million to renovate Benson and Madison high schools; $232 million to raze and rebuild Lincoln High and Kellogg Middle schools; and $150 million to fix lead, asbestos and other problems.
The district says polling shows nearly 60 percent of voters support a bond, although that polling comes ahead of a detailed proposal voters haven't yet seen.
The district scrapped its initial bond plans last July after revelations of lead in school drinking water captured headlines and cost Superintendent Smith her job.
Prior to that decision, the bond campaign had already been working for months.
The 2016 campaign sought proposals from political consultants in April, seven months before the November election.
This time, instead of asking just for money to rebuild decrepit buildings, the district has allocated a chunk of the bond proceeds—$150 million—to safety fixes and has yet to hire a permanent replacement for Smith. All of that makes for a nuanced story.
Koehler rejects the notion the district is behind schedule or has failed to provide voters a compelling narrative. He says the urgency of safety fixes dictates going to the May ballot rather than waiting until November or next year.
"We didn't want to launch the campaign until we had finalized the package," he says. "After the board takes a vote and refers the bond package on Tuesday night, you will see a very robust, community-driven effort."