Portlanders have shown a consistent willingness to tax themselves for worthwhile causes, but their generosity will be severely tested in the May 16 election. That's when they will decide the fate of the largest bond measure in the history of Portland Public Schools.
The school district's request for $790 million to upgrade and rebuild old schools is eye-popping for its sheer size, and comes as the district's credibility has been tested by controversies over lead in the water and turmoil in the administration.
With those issues in mind, Portland voters must ask themselves two questions.
First, do school facilities need improvement? That's an easy one. Yes.
Second, does the problem-plagued district have the ability to oversee such a massive construction program? We believe the answer is the same: yes. So, we recommend voters approve Measure 26-193.
That's a switch from a year ago, when the Portland Tribune editorial board advised the district not to proceed to the November ballot with a similar bond request. At that time, the administration was under fire for mishandling the lead issue and former Superintendent Carole Smith was being forced into early retirement.
The PPS board wisely delayed the election and used the following months to improve the bond plan. Along the way, it hired interim superintendent Bob McKean, who has stabilized operations, and concluded a national search for its next superintendent. (Donyall Dickey starts in July.)
One positive change to the 2017 bond measure is the inclusion of additional money to remove lead pipes and fixtures from school buildings. In total, more than 40 percent of the bond money would be spent on safety improvements, including lead and asbestos removal, roof repair, fire prevention, security systems, radon abatement and seismic upgrades.
Most of the remaining money would rebuild Lincoln High School and Kellogg Middle School and renovate Benson Polytechnic and Madison high schools.
These construction projects, as large as they are, will make only a dent in the backlog of deferred improvements for Portland's schools. District officials have been upfront about their intent to pass a series of bond measures, starting with the $482 million measure that voters approved in 2012.
Proceeds from that bond paid for upgrades at 52 schools and funded the modernization of Franklin, Roosevelt and (starting this summer) Grant high schools, and rebuilding the Faubion preK-8 school (with Concordia University).
The average PPS school building is 77 years old, and most are unsuited to modern education. Portlanders will need to keep approving bond measures in order to move the rest of our schools into the 21st century and make up for decades of neglect prior to 2012.
Voter confidence should be bolstered by three factors:
n The district has a smart financing plan, which will maintain the property tax rate for school bonds at about $2.50 per $1,000 of assessed value throughout this planned decades-long process of upgrading schools.
n The district's Office of School Modernization, which oversees bond expenditures and construction contractors, has functioned effectively amid the administrative tumult.
n Construction projects have — and will continue to have — aggressive citizen oversight through the Bond Accountability Committee and regular required performance audits.
We believe bond proceeds will be spent well, so the remaining concern is one of affordability. Right now, property owners in Portland pay $1.10 per $1,000 of assessed value for school construction projects. If this measure passes, that will jump to $2.50 — a rate the district hopes to maintain for years to come.
The increase equals $280 a year — $23 per month — for a home with a typical assessed value of $200,000. (Property tax limits generally keep assessed values far below the real market value.)
The question of affordability is an individual decision, but voters who think quality schools are among our most important community assets should vote yes on Measure 26-193.