Featured Stories

PPS must listen to taxpayers

My View • Public cannot afford cost of district's bond plan

At last week's public hearing on the Portland Public Schools' proposed $548 million bond measure, the most powerful testimony came from Portland residents who had the guts to stand up and admit that this staggering tax increase would severely affect their well-being and financial condition.

Parents, teachers and homeowners testified that 85 renovated and historically preserved public schools sounds great in 'Utopia,' but the reality in Portland is that most of us are struggling to make mortgage payments, pay bills, afford our already high property taxes and put food on the table.

The woman who testified just before me was almost in tears at the possibility that she could be facing a tax increase of nearly $400 per year for at least the next six years. It's a voice that the Portland Public School Board needs to hear.

'We know it's a lot to ask of people,' said David Wynde, finance chair of the School Board, 'but we think it's a fair thing to do given the needs that our kids and our schools have.'

Fair? Let's talk about fairness. The breakdown of the costs associated with rebuilding in the first phase includes $90 million to $92 million for Cleveland High School, $82 million to $86 million for Roosevelt, $48 million to $52 million for Jefferson, an average of $30 million for each of the five primary schools and $6 million just for the pre-planning process of rebuilding Lincoln High.

Now, let's compare the cost to rebuild Roosevelt High with the cost to build a new, state-of-the-art high school in Tacoma, ($42.5 million). As a former part owner of a construction company, I'm familiar with this school because it was one of many primary and secondary schools we built in Washington. Roosevelt is roughly the same size as the Tacoma school, serves half as many students, yet is slated to cost taxpayers double that of the new Tacoma high school.

It should be of concern to every Portland resident that PPS has completely inflated the costs associated with making necessary repairs on its schools. Many of these schools slated to be rebuilt exist in historic buildings that are more than 60 years old. The district has promised to maintain the historical integrity of these buildings, adding huge cost premiums to the construction budget.

During the hearing, I heard testimony regarding the condition of some of these schools and it's clear that critical repairs are necessary. However, those repairs can be implemented for far lower costs than what PPS is proposing. In their current plan, they want to completely rebuild and historically renovate all 85 schools in the district, for which there is no justifiable need. In this time of economic uncertainty, PPS needs to address the school structural issues and scope of work with restraint.

Homeowners, renters and business owners beware: If this bond measure passes, you will see a monumental increase in your property taxes and rental rates. Forty percent of all Portland residents are renters, which means a significant portion of this bond could be passed on in the form of rent/cost-of-living increases.

And homeowners: Don't believe the hype. This bond isn't just a mere $25 increase per month in your taxes. We are talking about an average increase of $400 to $500 a year, making Portland nearly the highest property-taxed city in the state.

Most importantly: This is just phase one. PPS wants to completely rebuild all 85 schools in the district within the next 30 years, which means your increased tax burden will remain over the next three decades. According to the economic study on this proposal done by ECONorthwest, the effects of these tax increases will have a profound impact on the local job market with an approximate loss of 4,500 jobs. This would be due to the dramatic decrease in disposable income that our Portland families will be facing.

I seriously question the study's assumption that more jobs eventually will be created than will be lost from these taxes (Bond plan will open doors to learning, My View, Dec. 2). Many of these 'newly created' jobs are temporary construction jobs that will not continue past the completion of these schools. A tax measure that puts this much of a detrimental burden on our society is unacceptable.

Bottom Line: The age-old money justification of 'It's for the Children' has tired with Portland residents. Our bank accounts are dry. It's time to say no to the Portland Public School District.

Lindsay Berschauer of Portland is a research associate with Cascade Policy Institute. From 2006 until the spring 2010, Berschauer lived in Olympia, Wash., and was part owner of a commercial construction company that built and renovated almost 20 primary and secondary schools in that state.