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Portland pushes off school bond vote to May 2017

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Portland Public Schools board member Amy Kohnstamm, who leads the School Improvement Bond committee.Portland voters will have one less difficult issue to wrestle with this November.

Looking at a ballot crowded with money measures — such as a corporate gross receipts tax and earmarks for high school graduation programs and Outdoor School — the Portland Public Schools board agreed to delay a proposed $750 million bond package for remodeling three high schools, a middle school and other upgrades.

The PPS board School Improvement Bond committee appears to have done an about-face in the hours before Monday evening’s meeting. The committee had agreed to forward a proposal to move ahead to the full board last Thursday, but hours before the Monday meeting, all three board members had changed their minds.

The decision to wait until May 2017 “allows us to have a more tightly focused bond package and allows us as a board to have more focus in landing stable leadership for the district,” said committee chair and board vice chair Amy Kohnstamm.

Superintendent Carole Smith abruptly resigned a week ago; Chief Financial Officer Yousef Awwad is acting-Chief Executive Officer. The board is seeking to place an interim superintendent by mid-August.

“We have to acknowledge that we really are not where we should be in order to approach the voters and I think this is absolutely the right decision,” committee member Paul Anthony said.

Director Pam Knowles, who is the third member of the board’s bond committee, said she has been concerned for a while about the growing number of revenue measures on the November ballot. As discoveries of lead in the water at many school buildings surfaced this summer, another $200 million was added to the proposed bond, but few details are available yet on what that would go to.

“I think that we need a little bit more time to finalize what that package might look like,” Knowles said, expressing her support for waiting until May.

Board member Mike Rosen was the lone voice of dissent, saying he thought the board would still be juggling multiple issues in May and that he wanted to see more public input before kicking the vote down the road.

“I just don’t see why we can’t provide a little more space (for public comment), considering how long it’s taken to get to this point,” Rosen said.

Kohnstamm countered that the decision to wait was itself a reaction to public opinion.

“I see this as really being diligent about it,” Kohnstamm said. She added that the board is already acting to spend money on some of the worst health and safety concerns in the district. This includes painting over cracked and peeling lead paint, which health experts have said is more likely to be dangerous to children’s health than lead found in water.

Portland voters passed a $482 million bond in 2012, which is currently remodeling Roosevelt, Franklin and Grant high schools as well as Faubion (PK-8) School and upgrades to several other schools.

Shasta Kearns Moore
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