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No choice but to upgrade schools

Our Opinion

The Portland School Board on Monday is likely to ask voters to make a hefty commitment toward remodeling and rebuilding the city's aging schools.

We agree that the board should send a six-year, $548 million bond measure to the May 2011 ballot, as a starting point for a much longer-term school modernization program. But we also believe that, in return for taxpayer support, the School Board and administration must make a firm commitment of their own - to be exceptionally precise and effective, now and into the future, as they communicate with voters about the educational outcomes they expect from this massive influx of capital.

The need to revitalize Portland's 85 school buildings is well-documented. These schools have an average age of 65 years, and most are not designed or equipped to deliver a 21st-century education.

Without improved facilities, Portland schools cannot provide the quality of education and safety that students deserve. More families, in turn, would choose to send their kids to the more modern schools in the suburbs - and this city's neighborhoods, economy and livability would decline as a result.

Series of bonds

Much must happen to solve this problem. First, the community must accept that almost all Portland schools are in need of significant remodeling, replacement or modernization. Second, everyone must understand that the solution is a long-term one and there really is no choice but to commit to a sustained, multi-decade campaign. Lastly, when talking about fixing schools, educators and others must always focus on the real desired outcome: ensuring the best educational opportunity for kids.

The first step in that process occurs Monday when the School Board considers placing a bond measure on the May ballot. The $548 million sum seems quite large - and, in fact, it would add $2 per $1,000 of assessed value to local property owners' tax bills. But it is actually the beginning point for a series of similar bond measures during the next three decades. As soon as one six-year bond expires, school officials hope voters will approve the next measure.

In this way, the district will accomplish several things. It will retire its debt for each bond measure in six years, instead of the typical 20 years - thereby reducing interest payments by hundreds of millions of dollars. It also will be able to maintain a consistent contribution from taxpayers - year after year - that would be applied toward school facility improvements.

The plan calls for eventually renovating or replacing every school in the district. The first round of improvements would have something for each school, but would concentrate primarily on eight buildings - Cleveland, Jefferson and Roosevelt high schools, and Faubion, Laurelhurst, Markham, Marysville and Rigler elementary and K-8 schools.

Clear work plan

If the bond measures are approved one by one, the average Portland homeowner will agree to spend a sizable sum - $350 a year in additional property taxes.

For voters and taxpayers to support the initial bond, the school district must commit to communicate clearly and consistently about what it specifically plans to accomplish and how its efforts are faring along the way. Such commitments must include:

• A clearly defined work plan that the public fully understands and can track over time.

• The assurance that projects will be completed on time and within budget.

• A detailed analysis of how the investment in school buildings is reducing energy use and other operating costs.

• And, of course, an ongoing assessment of how the improved facilities are helping students to perform better in school and to remain in school through graduation.

Communicating with all Portlanders will be a challenge given that the majority - 80 percent - of Portland households don't have children in school or direct contact with the schools.

Yet these people still can be persuaded to vote yes on a bond measure once they see that it will advance multiple community objectives - starting with a better education system that can lead to an improved economy and greater quality of life for everyone in Portland.