The Portland school board voted unanimously Tuesday to put the largest bond in Oregon history before voters in May.
The $790 million construction bond, if passed, would fund remodels of Benson and Madison high schools, demolition and new construction of Lincoln High and Kellogg Middle School, and fixes to safety hazards in nearly every Portland school.
For the first four years, property owners would pay $1.40 per $1,000 of assessed property value, meaning the owner of a home assessed at $240,000 would pay $336 a year. That would be on top of the $1.10 per $1,000, or $264 on a $240,000 home, property owners also will pay to help retire the district's 2012 construction bond.
If the bond passes, the state will kick in $8 million in matching funds.
Originally, the district planned to put a bond on November's ballot to capitalize on the high-turnout of a presidential election, but May revelations of lead-tainted drinking water caused the school board to pump the brakes.
The lead scandal ousted the district's longtime superintendent and laid bare how years of deferred maintenance, compounded by the ineptitude of a few district officials, wrought schools in dangerous disrepair.
The lead crisis also spurred an extensive assessment of school buildings that started in the summer. From it, district officials learned new and more accurate details about the scope of school safety problems. Lead lurks in the water of nearly every school. Most schools lack full safeguards against fires, such as sprinklers. Lead paint, radon and asbestos pose threats in classrooms, hallways and cafeterias. Most schools are out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
If that's not enough to worry about, several of the schools will be imperiled, as will most of the rest of Portland, when a major earthquake hits, an event expected sometime in the next 50 years.
The district has done incremental seismic work over the years, but the big picture plan is to prepare for an earthquake by slowly rebuilding or extensively modernizing schools.
To that aim, the district is enmeshed in a 30- to 50-year-long series of successive bonds to modernize all 90-plus of its school buildings, which average about 70 years old.
The district's first pass at this plan didn't pan out. In May 2011, voters rejected a half-billion-dollar bond measure. But Portland Public Schools bounced back. Voters overwhelmingly approved a $482 bond in November 2012.
This second bond, if approved in May, would also fund planning for the next bond, which is slated to modernize Cleveland, Jefferson and Wilson high schools.
"This bond will address all of the lead in water issues, all of the lead paint issues, all of the radon issues as well as put a deep amount of investment in accessibility, seismic upgrades," school board vice chair Amy Kohnstamm told The Oregonian/OregonLive. "I'm really proud of that work. It gives us an excellent road map."
Following the board vote to put the question on the ballot, officials will launch a promotional campaign, which Kohnstamm said is being managed by consultant Jeremy Wright.
The bond also seeks to further the district's drive to move away from K-8 schools in favor of middle schools. Portland Public Schools found the K-8 model leads to low enrollment in grades six, seven and eight of most K-8 schools and, consequently, inequities.
Thus, district officials want to transform the shuttered Kellogg Middle School into a middle school for Southeast Portland.
The resolution the school board approved Tuesday night specifies that, if voter pass the bond, the district will give an independent group of community members quarterly reports and audits to ensure bond dollars are being well spent.
School board member Mike Rosen told The Oregonian/OregonLive he was happy with the effort district staff had put into drilling down into what safety work was needed. He said he was heartened the resolution calling for the bond explicitly requires the board to establish by December short- and long-term strategies for dealing with all safety problems.
The May election will create a unique scenario, as voters won't just be deciding whether they want pass the bond -- but will also be choosing who will oversee the bond, should it pass. Three seats on the seven-member school board are up for election.
Current plans are based on neighborhood high schools enrolling 1,700 students, which has raised a few eyebrows considering Lincoln High is already at 1,698.
Kohnstamm pointed out that recent boundary changes funneled more children from one middle school to Wilson instead of Lincoln.
"In the longer term, yeah the boundaries are going to have to change and I think that's holding the board's feet to the fire. We're not going to be able to overcrowd Lincoln," Rosen said. "It could be a pretty tough decision in the future."
-- Bethany Barnes
Got a tip about Portland Public Schools? Email Bethany: firstname.lastname@example.org
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