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Our Opinion • Need for school bonds is still there

Portland's major school district had grown accustomed to hearing the city's generous voters say yes to its requests for money. So last year, when voters actually rejected just such a request, school leaders were forced to take a step back and consider what had gone wrong in the relationship between the voting public and Portland Public Schools.

It would have been relatively easy for the school board and administration to shrug off the defeat -- which came with the narrowest of margins -- as the result of a poor economy. But we are pleased to see that district leaders dug deeper instead, and are now on a path to present voters with a revised construction bond measure that promises to be propelled by a firmer and broader coalition of supporters.

As reported by the Tribune's Jennifer Anderson in last week's print edition, the May 2011 defeat of a $548 million bond measure resulted in the school district forming a Bond Development Committee of 31 parents, teachers, students, elected officials, business leaders and construction and design experts. This group has helped shape four alternatives, any one of which could potentially be forwarded to November's ballot.

Each of these four options would begin to accomplish what everyone knows must eventually be done: rebuilding or replacing PPS's aging and inefficient school buildings. This is not a task that can be completed with one or two bond measures. It must be an ongoing process, requiring a series of bond measures during a period of decades.

The job of upgrading nearly all of the district's 81 schools is so large, in fact, that it is discouraging to consider just how little of it can be done with the $411 million to $539 million being considered for a bond proposal.

But the district has to start somewhere, and it needs public support and understanding of the long-term nature of this undertaking. To ease the tax burden, the options being considered would spread out the life of the bonds for longer periods: Most of the money would be paid back over eight years, instead of the six-year timeframe proposed in 2011.

The practical effect of this change is that property taxpayers would pay either $1 or $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value (depending on the alternative chosen) vs. the $2 price tag associated with last year's bond.

The more expensive option this time -- at $539 million -- calls for rebuilding three of the city's high schools, along with one K-8 school. The other three alternatives -- at $411 million each -- give a much higher priority to the lower grades.

A bond program that begins with the high schools has a certain logic to it. Modernized high schools will touch more students more quickly than the other options on the table.

When the needs are so great, however, it's safe to say that a compelling case could be made for any of the four options the district eventually selects. PPS's inventory of schools -- with just two exceptions -- requires attention. If the public is unable to make a commitment to begin rebuilding, replacing and remodeling, then PPS will be incapable of competing with suburban school districts and become less attractive for families. The city's neighborhoods, business climate and property values will suffer as a result.

For these reasons, we are encouraged that the school district is taking seriously the message it received in 2011 and being thoughtful about how it will potentially approach voters for the next election.