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Better buildings, better education?

Our Opinion

As the Portland School Board considers a bold plan to revitalize the city's 85 school buildings, it must first start with a conversation about the education that occurs within those structures - and how that education might differ $548 million later.

The $548 million figure is what Portland Public Schools administrators propose to spend in what would be the first phase of capital improvements to aging schools. However, we believe the community debate that's about to ensue over this plan ought to go well beyond bricks and mortar to include a public discussion of how improved school buildings can help students perform better in Portland.

The plan to revamp school buildings comes at a time when the district is contending with numerous performance-related issues. Among questions voters will ask are:

• How would modernized and safer schools inspire more young people to excel academically?

• How would better school facilities help Portland increase its low graduation rates?

• More generally, how would better classroom environments lift overall academic achievement?

• How would better school facilities encourage parents to keep their children in Portland Public Schools and not flee to the suburbs?

In short, the school district must tie this investment in facilities to the need to provide a better future for local youngsters - 47,000 of whom are entrusted to Portland Public Schools.

Buildings in need of help

No one should be surprised that Portland schools are aging or that little has been done about it. The last bond measure was enacted a decade and half ago and was spread thinly through all schools.

Superintendent Carole Smith now says the best strategy is to target specific schools. The bond measure would pay for rebuilding Cleveland, Jefferson and Roosevelt high schools. It also would replace three K-8 schools - Faubion, Laurelhurst and Rigler - plus Markham and Marysville elementary schools.

Six years later - and after approval of a second bond measure - Smith wants additional schools rebuilt and others improved. During a 20- to 30-year period, all schools would either be upgraded or rebuilt.

The School Board will hold a public hearing on the plan Dec. 1 and may decide later next month to send the proposal to voters in May 2011.

The plan is not just bold - it's expensive. The initial, six-year bond would cost taxpayers an estimated $2 per $1,000 of assessed property value. The argument behind this measure, though, is hard to refute: Kids deserve a safe and effective place to learn.

Tie it back to performance

But School Board members and school supporters must realize that simply attempting to do the right thing for the right reasons is not enough to win voter support. Times are still tough for many Oregonians, and trust in government is low.

The recent election does provide evidence that taxpayers will invest in things they think matter, such as the Oregon Historical Society or libraries in Washington and Multnomah counties.

At the same time, the election shows voters aren't willing to approve new taxes simply because of past track records. Just ask TriMet, which saw a measure to finance better transit service for elderly and disabled riders go down to defeat. Many concerns got in TriMet's way on Election Day, including citizen frustration with service cutbacks and debate about employee benefits, light-rail costs and safety issues. Voters have supported TriMet in the past, but that's not enough this election.

Nor will the shameful condition of Portland's schools be enough by itself. Recent polls indicate voters acknowledge the poor condition of schools, but they also express concern about how school finances are managed.

We believe PPS leaders, to be successful, must change the debate. Yes, deteriorating schools are embarrassing. And yes, accountable management of taxpayer funds is a must. Those are givens.

It is not enough, however, for the community to debate new school buildings. Rather, this proposal to fund modern, safe and effective buildings should be evaluated based on how it can ensure a better education and future for Portland's young people.