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Portland: Trying to catch up on school construction

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.

Portland voters have been generous to schools; the operating levy passed with 63 percent approval, and a 1995 bond measure had strong approval as well. A poll of district voters in September showed 65 percent approval of a $500 million bond issue.

Approval would be in the image Portlanders like to promote: a vibrant urban center embracing green technology, mass transit, diversity, and “young professionals.” The city’s strong Democratic majority has been the margin of victory for most of the state’s Democratic office holders and the city remains a bulwark of Barack Obama backers and even networks dating to Howard Dean’s campaign in 2004. Voting in the city’s minority and working-class neighborhoods has increased sharply in recent years. All three of the high schools slated for rebuilding under the bond measure are in these neighborhoods; higher-income neighborhoods must wait until after 2017.

Sylvester, who headed the school modernization plan as it was designed, says the idea is to rebuild all 85 schools in a series of bonds issued period about every six years. Short-term financing, she notes, eliminates millions of dollars in interest charges that would be generated by more-traditional 20- or 30-year bonds. Seattle has a similar program, using a levy rather than bonds. Portland’s $548 million issue would still leave the district below average for bonded debt in the Portland area; at $2 per $1,000 of assessed value. the district would rank below large suburban districts such as Beaverton, West Linn, and Hillsboro.

Still, as the school board prepared to vote on the current bond plan, the region received a gloomy economic report from a consortium of business groups, showing Metro Portland’s jobs, wages, and investment income comparing poorly with Seattle and Denver, and even the national average. It’s the latest of several economic studies focused on Oregon’s economic woes, but the first centered on the state’s largest city and major economic driver.

Metro Portland’s average wage of $46,000 is below the national average of $48,000 and well below Seattle ($51,000), Minneapolis ($52,000), and Denver ($54,000), according to the study. Because of the low-wage economy, Portland is actually less affordable as a place to live than its competing metro areas, the study found.

Oregon made a transition in the 1990s from a natural-resource economic base to one with a mix of high-tech and service jobs blended with light manufacturing, but the technology jobs were largely in hardware, in contrast to Seattle’s software empire, and many of the jobs went overseas in the 21st century. Nothing has taken their place, and the state’s declining support for higher education has also placed Oregon at a competitive disadvantage.

The report notes that Portland does enjoy a “livability” factor but that does not outweigh its economic issues. While Portland continues to attract young and well-educated professionals, it is near the bottom when compared to other areas in terms of job creation and investment.

Recent weeks have brought several discouraging economic reports. The Oregon Department of Employment in November noted that Oregon in 2009 ranked only 32nd among states in per-capita income, its lowest ranking since 1929. Contributing to this is underemployment; Oregon ranked third in number of part-time workers in 2009.

Portland schools want to improve offerings in technology and new green industries, and hope the bond measure’s promises of technological advances will play favorably. “We need to provide the education so businesses will locate here,” Sylvester notes, adding that in the short term the construction will add much-needed jobs in the Portland district.

A consultant told the school board the bond measure would drive as many as 2,594 full and part-time jobs and contribute $220 million to the economy. The contribution is somewhat of a zero-sum game, however, as the district’s property owners rather than outside sources would pony up the funds.

Again, the contradictions. Portlanders clearly recognize their schools are aging and in serious need of more than a facelift, and they appear willing to foot the bill in hopes of long-range payoffs in community livability and economic health.

But they will be asked to make the plunge at a time when the city’s economic woes are deeply rooted and showing no signs of improvement. It will challenge the logo placed on city vehicles in better economic times: “Portland: A City That Works!”

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