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Bond draws unlikely critics

This time, school supporters disagree on the best way to proceed
by: Jennifer Hardin School supporters have collected nearly $1 million to draw out the vote as ballots go out today. Aging, outdated buildings have gone unaddressed for too long, they say.

As a former Portland School Board member, former Democratic Party of Oregon chairman and current union leader, Marc Abrams is about as blue as they get.

A staunch school-funding supporter, Abrams says he has never voted against a tax increase to help the schools - until now.

He and other progressive Portland voters plan to break their political traditions in the May 17 election by voting against Portland Public Schools' $548 million school construction bond - saying it's too expensive, ill-timed and full of what Abrams calls 'playground pork.'

'In order to make this look attractive, everyone's getting some green space,' he says. 'Are those important? Of course. But are they critical at this moment to deal with the emergency?'

Supporters of the bond, however, don't consider playgrounds to be frills.

'The PTAs at mid- and upper-income schools did their own fundraising to build covered playgrounds,' says Scott Bailey, a Northeast Portland parent activist, economist and former school board candidate who supports the bond measure.

'To me, it's an equity issue. We want kids to be active. And it rains a lot here. Two weeks ago, every field in Portland was closed for use because of the conditions.'

As it stands, the bond includes $12.4 million to build covered playgrounds and play structures. It includes $4.1 million for science labs, $5 million for seismic upgrades, $8.5 million for roof fixes, $9.1 million for high school fields, $15.4 million for accessibility improvements, and $364.2 million to rebuild eight schools plus do the design work needed to rebuild Lincoln High. Another $19.9 million would be used to prepare 'swing sites' to house students during renovations.

'I think the case has to be made for progressives, who have the duty to ensure government is efficient and effective so it earns the dollars it asks for,' Abrams says. 'The faster we can do this and get the right-sized bond on the ballot, the happier I am.'

Abrams and others with the 'Learn Now, Build Later' campaign say that while they think the bond measure is flawed, they do support the extension of the five-year local option levy, which would stave off deep teacher cuts.

The community's bond measure debate is intensifying as vote-by-mail ballots land in mailboxes this weekend. If both measures are approved, property tax rates would increase by $2.74 per $1,000 of assessed value - or about $400 per year for the owner of a median-value home.

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Tribune Photo: Jennifer Hardin • A small group of a half-dozen people gathered outside Portland City Hall on Wednesday to protest the school bond and local option levy measures on the May 17 ballot. The protesters said the measures were a mismanagement of public funds.

Too much for retirees?

For Betty Soljaga, a Southwest Portland retiree, the cost of the bond is simply too much to ask of seniors, like herself, and others with fixed incomes.

'For seniors who can't make the money up, I think they've been essentially thrown under the school bus,' she says.

Soljaga, who lives in the Bridlemile neighborhood, says she's facing a total $900 property tax increase on the house she bought for investment purposes. If the measures pass, she says, she might consider selling her home, but worries about scaring away buyers with a large property tax bill.

Soljaga says she doesn't have any children, but has supported every school tax during the years. 'But this is too extreme,' she says. 'It's the wrong time because of the recession. The recovery hasn't hit Portland. It's too much money. Half a billion dollars is way too much.'

It's not too much, however, for the armies of parents eager to start chipping away at the problems with the district's buildings, even if their own school won't get any major fixes.

North Portland's Beach K-8 School PTA gave $500 to the campaign, one of at least two dozen PTAs that have contributed hundreds or thousands of dollars each during the past two months. In all, the campaign is nearing the $1 million mark in contributions.

'It'd be nice if they were rebuilding Beach, but they can't rebuild every school,' PTA president Bryn Dearborn says. 'It is raising property taxes, but the bond is an investment that will pay really big dividends.'

Beach, an 83-year-old school building, would get some improvements, including a new covered playground, a natural gas boiler, repaired lighting for the auditorium and some science lab space for the middle-schoolers.

District officials were careful to make sure that every school would get something.

The PTA at Rieke Elementary in Southwest Portland also pitched in $500 for the two bond measures although that school won't see big fixes either. One important improvement, however, is on the list: conversion of the school's boiler to natural gas.

PTA President Dick Hausken says he's seen the problem when he picks up his daughter at school: 'When the furnace comes on, there's big puffs of black smoke coming out. You can smell it; people run away.'

The Rieke community has tried to address overcrowding for several years; three temporary classrooms accommodate the overflow. Parents have concerns about adequate bathroom space, and the cafeteria prep area is too small for volunteers to wash disposable trays.

But parents aren't selfish; they have the big picture in mind, Hausken says. 'You can't rebuild all the schools at the same time. No matter where you start, somebody's not going to get their part of the pie.'

No double majority

Whether the bond passes or fails, Jim Moore, a Pacific University political science professor and longtime elections observer, will be analyzing the results.

In midyear elections like this one, he says, voter turnout is typically low - 35 percent to 40 percent in the past. Because voters last year repealed Oregon's double-majority law, this election is the first test of the system that no longer requires a 50 percent turnout to pass tax increases.

'If we get a turnout of 30 percent, then this makes the argument about why we should've kept (the double-majority law),' Moore says. '(The measure) will have won or lost with 16 percent of the electorate.'