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Build later campaign walks bond tightrope

Parents see big risks as school district tries for both levy, funds for construction
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Eric Fruits, a parent organizer of the

Some parents within Portland Public Schools have formed a campaign called 'Learn Now, Build Later,' to oppose one of the school funding measures on the May ballot and support the other.

It's a tricky message, but the parents want voters to renew the district's five-year local operating levy, which will raise about $19 million to save the equivalent of 200 teaching jobs.

But they think taxpayers should reject the $548 million facilities bond measure to upgrade and rebuild schools. The parents opposing the bond say the economic timing is bad, the sum of money is large and the list of schools to receive improvements doesn't add up.

'I think it needs to be done, but it hasn't been well thought out,' says Eric Fruits, a parent of two children at Northeast Portland's Laurelhurst K-8 School - one of the nine schools that would be rebuilt in the first phase of the bond if it passes. 'I haven't seen any compelling reason why this has to be done right now.'

However, supporters of the bond measure beg to differ.

'I feel like the two measures leverage each other,' says Katharine Sammons, a Chapmant K-8 School parent. 'I've been in a lot of these schools. Particularly with the earthquake (in Japan), it's scary.'

At West Sylvan, where her daughter will be in three years, she says, there's dry rot on the windows, 'it's leaking all over the place,' and there are asbestos pipes within kids' reach with large danger warnings on them.'

Although parents' perspectives differ, one thing is certain: The bond measure supporters could face more opposition than they expect.

Save the patient first?

As an economist and citizen activist, Fruits still wants to be a vocal advocate for the district's local-option levy, calling it critical to maintain the health of the schools.

'Even though it is maybe expensive for some people, because of the funding situation from Salem, it seems like the local-option levy is going to be a good supply of stable funds for years to come,' he says.

Other parents behind the 'Learn Now, Build Later' campaign agree.

'The operating levy is absolutely essential,' says Lainie Block Wilker, a Laurelhurst parent and attorney. 'It's really unthinkable what next school year is going to look like if the levy fails.'

Block Wilker finds herself in an odd position as she opposes the capital bond.

'Most of us are pro-schools, pro-education, who've worked on all these (school funding) elections and are concerned that packaging these two together is certainly going to hurt education,' she says.

The local option levy would raise $19 million for the district to stave off hundreds of anticipated teacher cuts caused by shortfalls in the state budget.

If both school measures are approved, the owner of a median-value home in Portland would see a property tax increase of $300 per year for the bond measure, and $111 per year for the local option.

Skip McKallip, an attorney, Grant High School parent and self-described PPS 'gadfly' says that's too much to ask taxpayers for at once.

'I'm concerned thatthe combined ask of the facilities bond and the levy in the same election - and even in the same campaign - may betoo largein today's political and economic environment, andrisk passage of the levy,' he says.

He considers the double-ask akin to 'emergency room doctors leaving a dying patient on the gurney while talking about how they're going to redecorate the poor guy's house.'

Lawn signs and canvassing

While the parent critics don't plan to raise any money, hold events or do any marketing to get their word out (besides creating a one-page website), the campaign in support of both measures is a well-oiled grassroots machine.

Portlanders for Schools has now raised nearly $500,000 in contributions, in part though phone banking by the 500-plus volunteers who've worked four nights per week for the past two months.

The campaign has gained the endorsement of the Portland Business Alliance, Portland Stand for Children, the League of Women Voters and other groups.

Campaign manager Ben Unger says volunteers are set to get out lawn signs and begin canvassing neighborhoods on April 2, just before voter pamphlets arrive. Regarding the facilities bond, he says, volunteers are spending a lot of time educating people about the problems in the schools. The majority of voters have not stepped foot in a school building recently, he notes.

'They don't get to see the missing tiles, leaky ceilings, asbestos. There's a lot more stories to tell,' he says.

As to the critics' concern that bundling both measures together will turn voters off, Unger disagrees. 'My experience is people are concerned about the safety of the buildings and the number of teachers they're going to have.'

Traditionally, Portland voters have supported increased taxes for their schools.

But Block Wilker says parents are getting weary, frustrated by fallout from the K-8 redesign and budget priorities that have cut programs and increased class sizes.

She cites a handful of parents in her circle who've left the district in the past two years for the Riverdale School District or private schools.

'At some point, the education just gets so bad that families are starting to opt out - I think we've kind of hit the tipping point,' she says.

Will children learn better?

Nancy Hamilton, a longtime school funding activist who supports the bond, enrolled her daughter at Riverdale, but not out of frustration. Rather, her daughter didn't make the lottery into one of the PPS special programs she had hoped for.

Yet Hamilton admits that parents are indeed weighing their options - and that's all the more reason to support the bond measure.

'It's especially important for parents who might be considering moving out of the district because this is our best opportunity to keep our urban district strong,' she says. 'Those parents who are saying - 'Is the district going to be giving me what I need for my kid?' - those are the parents who should be supporting this bond.'

Hamilton, who lives in Irvington, says she also was disappointed that Grant isn't on the list for the the first phase of renovations, but she's seen what a difference a better classroom environment can make for all kids.

She works at McKinstry, a Portland company that retrofits K-12 schools in Oregon and Washington. 'We have facilities that were built before polio (vaccine) was invented,' she says. 'How do we teach our kids in a 21st century world when we have to trade off plugging in basic equipment? … Kids' productivity goes up when they're learning in a healthy building.'

Stuart Emmons, an architect and Lincoln High School parent, says he'll vote against the bond measure despite his fervent support of the operating levy.

He had asked the school board to come up with a more equitable slate of schools to be rebuilt - for instance all of the comprehensive high schools at once - but 'was told it's impossible,' he says.

'I want this bond measure to pass, be really smart, so people trust that it's being well thought out and we're getting our best bang for the buck,' he says. 'I just don't feel that on this thing.'

He wonders why it can't wait two years, since the district has already waited this long.

Sammons, the Chapman parent, says waiting isn't an option. She's hearing an overwhelmingly positive response from voters on the phone banks, she says. Besides, what affects the buildings has a direct tie to learning, she says.

'You just want to leverage the two off each other.'