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Portland: Trying to catch up on school construction

Portland wants to rebuild schools even as the area struggles financially and wonders about how it has fallen behind Seattle's economic position. At least Portland's superintendent of schools is popular, though.

Portland's Grover Cleveland High School is one building targeted for a major remodeling.

Portland's Grover Cleveland High School is one building targeted for a major remodeling. Tedder/Wikimedia Commons

Carole Smith, superintendent of Portland Public Schools.

Carole Smith, superintendent of Portland Public Schools.

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.

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Posted Sat, Dec 18, 4:06 p.m. Inappropriate

An interesting piece as Seattle and Portland are very similar as Professor McKay points out.

I know Seattle schools very well (I write for the education blog, Save Seattle Schools) and capital issues are a special interest of mine.

Professor McKay states:

"If voters approve the bond, nine schools will be totally rebuilt and the other 76 substantially improved; work is to be completed in 2017."

The Portland bond is quite large at $548M; however, if it can cover rebuilding 9 schools (including 3 high schools) AND improve 76 more that would be great. (And almost a miracle by Seattle standards but read on.)

Seattle has two alternating capital measures. One is the BEX (Building Excellence) which is for our major renovations and rebuilds. Our last BEX measure (BEX III) was for $490M and they went for a bond instead of a levy this time in order to get all the money upfront. (The danger here is that with a levy you only need 51% of the vote but with a bond you need 60% supermajority to pass it.) On the plus side, since the BEX program started the district has renovated/rebuilt many elementaries, a few middle schools and nearly every high school. (Seattle tends to think of the high schools as the jewels in the crown and spends a lot of money on them. We're average now about $100M per building.) The district has been careful to spread the remodeling around the entire district but has sometimes pick favorites among the schools rather than just need.

The last BEX covered renovation (basically a rebuild) of 1 high school, a joint 6-12 campus with a middle school and high school building, a new K-8 building, a CTE center at one high school and an addition to another high school. It also took care of waterline projects at 7 schools, air quality at 7 schools and returfing 4 athletic fields along with sundry technology improvements.

The other SPS facilities levy is BTA (Buildings, Technology and Academics/Athletes) which is for major maintenance like roofs and HVAC systems as well as the other categories. One of the major challenges here is that Seattle Schools has nearly $500M in backlogged maintenance. Some of that is not keeping up with basic maintenance and allowing small problems to become larger problems. Some of it is because Seattle still has a large number of buildings over 50 years old.

One of the challenges in Seattle is doing historic rebuilds which cost a lot more money. Our district is finally, in the next building cycle, going to go with a more cost-effect standard blueprint manner of building schools rather than an individual design for each building.

A state audit of Seattle School's capital building program is scheduled to come out in late Jan. 2011 and the draft version doesn't bode well for the program. The poster child should be Garfield High School which started at a $60M estimated budget and bloated out to $120M (and counting).

Portland would do well NOT to follow Seattle's example.


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