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Portland's Roosevelt High School to get $5 million 'makerspace'

Board votes 5-2 in spite of accountability committee's warnings of fiscal irresponsibility


TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Roosevelt High School, currently under construction, will get a 10,000 square-foot makerspace for career-technical education in manufacturing, aviation and transportation that will also be designed to be used by the whole community. Over strong objections from the Bond Accountability Committee, the Portland Public Schools board voted 5-2 Tuesday evening to spend up to $5 million on Roosevelt High School shops for manufacturing and aviation/transportation.

The vote came after years of fighting over the Roosevelt High School design process. Critics, led by former technology teacher Donna Cohen, said the district was shortchanging a school with more low-income and racial minority students on career-technical education space.

“Let’s not make some of the same mistakes of the past,” Cohen told the board.

The master plan for Roosevelt High School — which is under construction — called for a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) space aligned with math and science classes, as well as a science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) space aligned with the school’s theater.

Soon after four new board members were seated on the dias last summer, they voted in an August resolution to correct what they saw as an error in scope of the Roosevelt project and explore building what’s called a makerspace. Makerspaces are, in a nutshell, sophisticated versions of what used to be called shop classrooms.

After the August resolution, board chair Tom Koehler organized a task force to discuss the proposal, which got support from private industry. Vigor Industrial said Tuesday they were prepared to support the project with $300,000 and others are expected to come forward.

The new space would be 10,000 square feet — a two-story building with 5,000 square feet on each floor. Roosevelt classes would hold priority, but district-wide and community classes are also envisioned.

The new space would align with a district and state-level priority for career-technical education, which is associated with higher graduation rates and higher-paying jobs.

Unanimous objections from committee

Bond Accountability Committee Chairman Kevin Spellman came out strongly and clearly against the use of 2012 bond monies for the project. He said the committee — consisting of many people who regularly handle massive construction projects — unanimously urged the board to consider alternatives, such as putting it in the 2016 bond request to voters in November, waiting until 2017 to see if there is contingency money leftover, or finding other sources of funding.

At a March 29 budget and operations committee meeting, Spellman suggested the new project would throw the remaining five years of the 2012 bond and the next bond into question.

“What are the rules going forward?” the citizen accountability committee chairman asked. “If we approve this, what are the criteria going forward? You have to tell us because we can’t come to you and tell you you’re breaking the rules if we don’t know what the rules are.

“What we do know is, if you approve this, the budget isn’t the rule, because this is a budget-buster. The vetting and approval by the community isn’t the rule because that hasn’t happened. The master plans and approval aren’t the rule. The bond measure is not a source document. The long-range facilities plan is not a source document,” Spellman said, finishing with a hypothetical: “What is to stop us from saying we want a third gymnasium for Franklin (High School)?”

Supporters say the money can either come from $47 million in bond premiums (the higher-than-anticipated price that the bonds got at auction), or from contingency funds.

Spellman said that with only 30 percent of the bond's projects completed, the contingency funds are already more than half gone. Moreover, with the “white-hot” Portland construction market, the risk of running out of money is significant, he said.

Jerry Vincent, the new leader of the bond office, said the bond premiums have already been spent on upsizing the high schools from a 1,500-student capacity to a 1,700-student capacity.

“We don’t have a big dump truck of money sitting in a room somewhere,” Vincent said. “We’re not contingency fat.”

SCREENSHOT: PPS.NET - School board member Tom Koehler explains his vote for the Roosevelt High School makerspace April 5.

'Timing is now'

Koehler seemed to disagree. He said he sees “robust” contingencies with each bond project having contingencies and the overall program having an additional contingency.

“(While) it’s not going to be easy, this management can be done,” he said, adding: “The timing is now.”

Pam Knowles, the board’s longest-serving member, proposed an amendment to spend $150,000 from the 2012 bond to design the new makerspace with construction costs to be included in the request to voters for a 2016 bond. That way, the district could immediately get started on it if voters approve it, the Roosevelt community would join other communities in having an incentive to vote for the bond and the district would have more time to prepare.

Julie Esparza Brown joined Knowles as the only votes for her amendment and the only votes against the resolution for the makerspace without the amendment. Brown shared Spellman’s worry that going forward with the resolution would jeopardize other bond projects, such as Americans with Disabilities Act renovations and seismic upgrades at schools across the district.

“It’s a wonderful project,” Brown stressed. “It’s just not currently financially prudent.”

No more

With the passage of the resolution, construction on the new 10,000-square-foot makerspace is expected before Roosevelt High School completes construction in 2017.

Board member Steve Buel said the RHS design process was the bond's first and wasn’t done well, leaving many questions about equity.

“We need to say to Roosevelt: No more,” Buel said. “And we need to say to schools in North Portland: No more. And we need to say to schools in Southeast Portland: No more. And this is part of saying that.”


Shasta Kearns Moore
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