MyView: Path to PPS bond plan is paved with bad judgment

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - A Portland Public Schools bond measure on the general election ballot will fix school buildings, but some worry that it won't improve education for students.Portland Public Schools is on a misguided mission to pass a construction bond of almost a half billion dollars, the largest in its history.

And it’s only the beginning.

This bond is planned to be the first of seven, totaling more than $3.35 billion, which could last for 32 years — assuming all seven are passed by you, the voters.

This means we will all pay, homeowners and renters alike.

It’s an assumption school district officials have made. In their world, to vote against a school bond is practically un-American.

In the real world, sometimes you have to say no.

PPS needs a history lesson. The last construction bond passed in 1995. The actual construction continued until five years ago. That bond was targeted for earthquake and fire safety, maintenance and upkeep, handicapped accessibility and computer upgrades.

Every high school in the district except Wilson High School had seismic improvements. Seismic work was completed at Franklin, Grant and Roosevelt, which are now proposed for rebuild in this bond. Marshall High School had almost $7 million poured into its campus — and is now closed.

This bond proposes to spend $70 million at Roosevelt, $85 million at Franklin and $95 million at Grant. The construction costs per square foot of $306, $346 and $389, are astronomical compared to statewide high school construction costs of $220 to $240 per square foot.

If we look at the reported capacity of the nine PPS high schools, they are under-enrolled by more than 5,300 students. PPS has 72 buildings at the elementary level with an under-enrollment of more than 10,000 students. Our schools can handle 15,000 more students in the buildings we already have open. That’s not even including the 17 PPS buildings sitting idle like Marshall and Smith Elementary.

PPS has a “targeted enrollment” number for its various schools: 1,400 students at the high school level and 500 at the K-5, K-8 and middle school levels. Five of our high schools are below this 1,400-student target, three of them significantly. Twenty-two elementary or middle schools are below 415 students, well below the target of 500.

How many excess buildings do we need?

A Portland State University enrollment study predicts that during the next 15 years we may have student numbers increase as little as 2,000 students, or as much as 8,000.

An ‘arrogant process’

During the 1995 campaign, supporters said passing the bond would enhance the vitality of Portland.

In 2012, Portland cannot call itself a great city when PPS has a graduation rate of 62 percent; English language learners have only a 36 percent graduation rate; Black, Hispanic and Native American students have a 50 percent or lower graduation rate. Fifteen of Portland’s schools rank in the bottom 15 percent statewide in terms of student achievement, student academic growth and for high school graduation rates.

The number of instructional days is among the lowest in the nation — 169.5 days this calendar year, with a possible loss of an additional nine school days next year.

Having a nice, modern building doesn’t guarantee an education. Rosa Parks, the newest Portland school, built in 2006, ranks in the bottom 5 percent of Title 1 schools.

If this bond passes, will we have gleaming new buildings with too few teachers and students warehoused in study halls?

This bond will have no effect on the 2013 Public Employee Retirement System cost increase, and we narrowly avoided cutting 110 teachers this fall. Why in the middle of a deep recession has PPS not planned ahead for the inevitable reduced revenue?

Poor long-term planning has led to the elimination of the district’s three most recently constructed high schools (Marshall, Adams and Jackson). We cannot afford to waste funding on poor judgment and poor planning.

School district administrators will point to what they call “long-range facilities planning,” but this was an arrogant process. It was a series of public meetings where input from outsiders was not always welcome and that were at times poorly attended.

If school leaders could not obtain better results after the last bond, what guarantee is given that they can manage this gargantuan project? We cannot afford to fail our children. Without a cost-effective 21st Century education plan to deal with the dismal 62 percent graduation rate, families will not move to Portland and our economy will suffer.

Portland’s children need a school district that will implement a 21st Century education plan with an emphasis on improved educational achievement and graduation rates, not a focus on buildings.

Teresa McGuire and Kelsey Green Grout are part of Restore Education Before Buildings,

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