Perhaps the best metaphor for an upcoming school bond issue in transit-rich Portland is that of two light-rail trains rushing along on parallel tracks with only the foggiest notion where they will wind up in the city's current economic doldrums.
One train is full of young professionals, Greenies and neighborhood activists who are gearing up for the largest school bond issue in state history. The other train is full of unemployed and part-time workers, with business leaders at the helm trying to slow the train.
Has Portland found something special in terms of investing in its future or is the city's increasingly European aura unsustainable in today's economy? Portland Public Schools, the largest school district in Oregon, is about to test that by sending a $548 million bond issue to voters in May; the school board unanimously approved the proposal Monday (Dec. 13).
If voters approve the bond, nine schools will be totally rebuilt and the other 76 substantially improved; work is to be completed in 2017.
Portland has allowed its school facilities to age without substantial new or improved buildings in the last several decades. Many of Portland's school buildings date to the pre-World War II era — the average age is 65 years — and are considerably behind nearby suburban schools in terms of technology and other important educational tools.
It is easy to make a case for the bonds; any inspection of Portland schools will lead an observer to see the need. The more difficult case will be financial and political. Financial because the bonds will cost an average Portland homeowner about $350 a year, following a series of other property-tax measures approved in recent years, including a 2007 operating levy for schools totaling nearly $40 million a year. Political because, unlike previous bond measures, the money won't be spread equally around the district, but will "go deep" on the nine targeted schools, raising the danger that passed-over patrons will stay home on election day.
In some ways, Portland and Seattle schools are comparable: Student enrollment is virtually identical at about 47,000 students and issues of minorities, poverty and languages are similar and both have had traumatic experiences with racial balancing and reorganization. But Seattle schools draw on a property-tax base three times that of Portland, which lacks Seattle's industrial base.
Portland currently has one advantage over Seattle, however; its leadership enjoys community-wide support and a respectable financial record while Seattle struggles with a scathing state audit earlier this year and the resignation of its internal auditor just last week.
Portland Superintendent Carole Smith in November was extended a second three-year contract by a unanimous school board, and enjoys strong support among varied constituencies. Smith brought much-needed stability to the school system after the district went through six superintendents in 15 years since Matthew Prophet left following a 10-year tenure.
In an era where big-city school leaders are likely to come from a business background, Smith's career is in alternative education and programs for urban youth. Smith took over a foundering open-schools program Portland offered for non-traditional learners in 1982 and made it into a model program before leaving for central office administration in 2005.
She's been with the district for 28 years. Insiders praise her work with students and parents at Jefferson High School, one of the district's most-troubled schools, as well as with the alternative Open Meadows School. She is considered a good listener and communicator as well as an innovator; the district has initiated several experimental programs for students with learning problems in recent years and she is driving a high-school reorganization plan that will be advanced if the bonds are approved in 2011.
Oregon voters in 1990 adopted a rigid property-tax limit, and districts have been forced to handle much of their costs with special levies and bond measures; this is exacerbated by the current economic recession, which has forced the Legislature to reduce school support because of declining state income taxes. Portland schools in 2007 passed an operating levy producing nearly $40 million a year but expiring in 2012. The district's chief operating officer, C.J. Sylvester, says there is discussion of asking voters next May to approve both the bond measure and extension of the operating levy rather than waiting for the operating levy to expire a year later.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!