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The big ask divides Portland

School bond election comes down to the wire
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Portlanders for Schools campaign volunteer Rachel Philofsky makes last-minute phone calls to voters just before 8 p.m. Tuesday night. The bond measure came down to the wire, while the local-option levy passed by a wide margin.

One thing was clear Tuesday night as a $548 million bond measure for Portland Public Schools went down to an extremely narrow defeat: 'It was a big ask.'

That phrase became the go-to party line of the night, uttered by everyone from pollster Tim Hibbitts to Superintendent Carole Smith to board members and other supporters in an attempt to make some sense of the closeness of the race.

'We knew it was a big ask,' Smith says. 'We got universal support and understanding about the need. … It was the package size and timing. The struggle is the state of the economy.'

The economy was the night's scapegoat.

The plan to rebuild nine schools and upgrade pieces of others over the next six years carried an unprecedented price tag: a $300 property tax increase to the owner of a median-value home in Portland.

Another $100 per month will come from the renewal of the five-year local option levy, which voters approved. The levy will raise $19 million for the district over two years, preventing the layoff of about 200 teachers.

So if it the bond was such a big ask, why do it?

'The reason we felt pretty confident about the ask was the need was so great, and the price tag per household was right in the middle of every district around us,' says board member Bobbie Regan, who was re-elected to a third term Tuesday night.

The risk to put the bond out to voters was worth taking, considering the success of school funding campaigns in the past, says Hibbitts, an independent pollster with Davis, Hibbitts and Midghall Inc.

'It was probably a correct assessment,' he says. 'In a better economic climate, they would've had less trouble with this.'

Opponents had an effect

The economy wasn't the only factor people cited.

Portland Association of Teachers President Rebecca Levison offered her own take on the levy's win and the bond's apparent defeat: 'People are supportive of the teachers and they're leery of the administration. That's something they're going to have to overcome.'

The union hasn't exactly been cozy with the district lately. Levison says the union is 'pursuing potential legal action' against the district over the proposed budget plan for teachers to teach six of eight high school class periods, which would save $4 million from the $20 million in needed cuts.

But Hibbitts said if voters were truly dissatisfied with the district, they would have shot down the levy, to send a message. They did not.

He thinks another factor in the closeness of the race is that there was an active, organized opposition to the bond measure - and although relatively unfunded, opponents were able to get their message out.

A half-dozen or so parents in March created the group 'Learn Now, Build Later' with a website and e-mail list of followers. They didn't hold mass sign-waving or phone banking events, but they did get face time at newspaper editorial meetings and local talk radio shows.

They presented their own research and sound bytes through op-eds in newspapers and discussions in their schools and neighborhoods.

In the end, 'I think their message - that this isn't the right time for this, it's too much for voters - was resonant,' Hibbitts says. 'If given a reason to vote no and what appears to be a credible voice to look at, I think that might be something people would listen to.'

Looking ahead

So what happens next? With near final election results on Wednesday afternoon showing the bond losing by a mere 1,000 votes, voters can expect to see another bond, of a smaller size and scope, sometime in the next few years. 'Clearly, the demand is high and people are hoping for a smaller price tag,' Smith says.

Adds board member David Wynde, who helped lead the bond process, but will soon end his term this summer: 'We'll do some research, evaluate the next steps, and at some point, we'll be back. There's only one source of capital - going to voters.'

The only question will be: What will that bond look like and who will create it?

The Learn Now, Build Later parents are not relying on the district to lead the process. They're working on their own plan, which they call their 'turnaround model,' using business parlance.

'I think the business community has to intervene,' says Lainie Block-Wilker, a Laurelhurst parent leader of the group. 'There are no checks and balances on the school board. I've checked with the city, county, PTA leaders, Stand for Children, everybody rubber-stamped it.'

The group is looking to organize a 'turnaround team' of local experts in school design and construction, educators and business leaders. They want the team to craft a bond measure based on four primary criteria: having between 12 percent and 22 percent of the project spent on seismic safety, 'impacting more students,' geographic equity, and consolidating schools.

In other words, the group wants to close schools - both K-8 and high schools - to be able to offer more robust programs at each school. That's the approach the district originally took with its high school redesign process before it settled on just closing one campus, Marshall.

Block-Wilker and other group members declined to name which schools they would close.

To the thought of closing schools, Smith said the district's buildings are small and at capacity, and there 'aren't any simple solutions.'

A greater resistance

To be sure, the apparent failure of a school bond measure in Portland is a rarity - a big deal that many in the community will be scratching their heads over for years to come.

'This is a liberal to very liberal city, politically,' Hibbitts says. 'But this election and the fire bond last fall might be considering that people's willingness to support the additional tax increases might be getting more push back, more resistance.'

During the past five months, thousands of paid and volunteer parents, students and community members knocked on 60,000 doors and made 35,000 phone calls. They ran TV ads, created online music videos and had lawn signs decorating every corner of the city.

The campaign raised an unprecedented $1.2 million, including small donations from school PTAs, tens of thousands in contributions from architects, engineers, large and small businesses, individuals, education advocacy groups, and $105,000 from the Portland Association of Teachers.

A group of young Portlanders for Schools campaign workers huddled Tuesday night, commiserating over the apparent loss.

'We're pretty much exhausted,' said one young man. 'It's hard to get people to pay more taxes.'

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