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Schools quietly build bond support

Potential November measure still has to persuade some
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT, Kevin Truong, a junior at Benson Polytechnic High School, helped craft four potential capitol bond proposals for the Portland School Board to consider. The board could vote this month to refer a bond measure to the November ballot.

Portland Public Schools' $548 million construction bond measure failed last May by 578 votes.

Stuart Emmons was part of that dissent, but he says this time around -- if and when the school board refers a capital bond measure to the November ballot -- he's a yes vote.

"I think there's been a lot more transparency and community outreach this time," says Emmons, an architect and parent of a senior at Lincoln. "It's going to be more from the community -- it's our problem, not just PPS' problem. These are our schools. The community needs to own this challenge."

After last year's narrow defeat, Emmons was one of 31 activist parents, teachers and students; elected and business leaders; and construction and design experts who volunteered to serve on the district's Bond Development Committee.

"I want to be part of the solution," he says. "I don't want to sit around and keep throwing hand grenades at PPS, because it doesn't solve problems."

In the next few weeks, the committee will likely urge the board to refer a bond measure to voters in November.

With just four months to campaign, it'll be a challenge to get city voters on board, supporters admit. But presidential elections typically bring a bigger turnout, and PPS officials and advocates are looking to distinguish this process from the last one.

"(This bond is) approached in a much more methodical, careful way," says committee member and Lincoln parent Mike Roach, also co-owner of Paloma Clothing in Hillsdale. "Last time, that it was too rapidly put together was fair criticism. (This time), having parents involved in the development causes the district to approach it in a different way."

The committee will recommend to the school board one of four possible bond options, which the public has previewed in recent weeks.

All are cheaper than last year's big request that would have cost $2 per $1,000 of assessed property value. That bond would have increased a homeowner's property tax by about $300 a year for a home assessed at $143,000.

Three of the proposed packages now on the table would cost half as much, and one would cost $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed property value.

The two options that have generated the most support are to capitalize on the help of potential funding partners (rebuilding one high school, two K8s and two elementary schools); and to focus on the high schools (rebuilding three high schools and one K8).

The school board meets on June 11, 18 and 25 before disbanding for the summer.

Any bond measures for the November ballot must be submitted to the Multnomah County Tax Supervising and Conservation Commission by Aug. 7. That means a decision must come quickly.

Lingering distrust

While a November bond referral appears likely, winning the public's support will be no small task, as 60,438 voters rejected the measure a year ago.

There's still a lingering distrust by some traditional school supporters.

Kate Swindell, parent of a freshman at Lincoln, attended the public session at Lincoln last week. It was the most well-attended, after sessions at Madison and Roosevelt.

Yet she didn't understand why the district appeared to be locked into the four options that were presented.

"I emerged feeling that we aren't being as visionary as we should be -- I repeatedly hear 'We can't do that, we can't do that,' " she says.

Swindell says she told her fellow attendees at the meeting that she sits on the board of directors for Planned Parenthood, which just built its new regional service center in Northeast Portland for $11 million.

She questioned how the district arrived an estimate of $255 million to rebuild three high schools, and whether starting from scratch might be more efficient. On top of the $255 million are $95 million in "program costs," which include bond issuance costs, materials and labor cost escalation and improvements to the buildings students will relocate to while their school is renovated.

District leaders responded by telling her to stay within the parameters of the discussion, which was frustrating, she says.

"I don't think there's any one big visionary leading the charge," she says, "and without that, we're going to lose our way."

Educational impact

Swindell says she voted for last year's bond measure despite some misgivings but is leaning toward a no vote this time because she believes the district must first get its house in order by closing and consolidating schools.

That's the same opinion of another major critic, Laurelhurst parent Lainie Block Wilker, who led the "Learn Now, Build Later" campaign last year and is now urging PPS to defer the bond from the November ballot.

Block Wilker also charges that fixing buildings is not directly linked to student learning.

Others wholeheartedly disagree.

"Sometimes parts of the roof actually fall down," Benson High junior Kevin Truong says of his school's main building. "There was a sewer leakage in the main office; sometimes outlets don't work; and there's no air conditioning at all. Sometimes the heater comes on on a hot day, blows into the vents, and a lot of students get distracted."

Truong is one of two student members of the Bond Development Committee and also served on the district's long-term facilities planning committee.

He says students throughout the district would benefit directly from an "educational impact statement" that may be written into the board's policy for the contractor bidding process as part of a capitol bond process.

"Contractors would detail how they'd involve students, schools and teachers in the bidding process," explains Scott Bailey, a fellow committee member and former Grant parent.

Students could be placed in internships with the contractors, help with design, assist teachers with curriculum around sustainability or lead community outreach efforts.

"There's just a lot of positive we can do that will start to bring along this educational vision and start to heal the distress a lot of people feel," Bailey says.

Bailey is part of a group of about 40 parents who've been meeting since the last bond failure to try and craft a better proposal.

The group doesn't yet have a name or website, but it spans across the district and members hope to use it as a true grassroots voice for the district's latest effort.

Like other parents, Bailey is anxious to start the process of modernizing and rebuilding the schools, since it will likely take several bond measures over 30 years.

"A lot of us are feeling the urgency," he says. "If we waited for perfection, we'd never fix our buildings."

For the detailed proposals, see: www.pps.k12.or.us/departments/buildings-and-learning/7123.htm