Sunday, March 6, 2011

Portland $548 million school bond: No, but . . . .Part III

During the last two weeks, we've discussed the facts behind Portland Public Schools' request for you to approve a $2500 + increase in total property taxes for:
  • $370 million for needed building upgrades in some of its public schools
  • An extra $178 million (total of $548 million) for building upgrades in ALL of its public schools
  • $0 for teachers or improved curriculum
In spite of the facts that:
  • Portland's latest unemployment rate is almost 10%
  • Portland renters pay less than their homeowners
  • Since 2007, the average Portland property has declined almost 10% in value.
PPS is advertising that the average Portland homeowner's annual increase is only $300.  The Public School system is, as reported last week, using the term "average" incorrectly, neglecting to add in  bond costs like insurance and interest ($77.5 million), and disclosing the increase in annual terms ($300) without giving a total ($2500). 

In other words, PPS appears to be banking on the fact that you aren't very good at math and won't notice that they aren't, either.

One of Portland's local professors, Dr. Eric Fruits, recently presented further findings to the PPS Board.  Based on census data and Journal of Urban Economics, he estimates that "approximately 4,500 people age 50 and older may be driven out of Portland if voters approve the higher property taxes." 

What does the PPS board say? 
  • "Anyone needs a fact-lift after 65 years," says Pam Knowles, co-chair of Portland School Board.
  • Portland School Superintendent Carole Smith is more to the point.  She said it is her goal to persuade voters to approve new construction "until all the schools have received the overhauls the district says they need."
It's interesting that Superintendent Smith does not say that she wants to persuade voters to approve construction that PPS actually needs.  She says that she wants you to vote for overhauls that they SAY they need.  That is relevant here, since $178 million in "added" repairs was tacked on to this bond. PPS' public relations firm said we'd be more likely to vote for it, if we all got a little something.

What do you say?

Since 2007, our economy has suffered a decline surpassed only by the Great Depression.  Federal and State governments are tightening their belts, reflecting the sacrifices made by their constituents.  It is in this environment that PPS asks its homeowners for far more than it needs.

Portland homeowners faced with the need for updates for their homes after a fire like the one at Marysville School would likely be limited to what was covered by insurance.  Superintendent Smith, however, has a different view.  "The total anticipated proceeds from the insurance claim are estimated in the range of $5 - $7 million.  Part of that money has already been spent to re-establish Marysville students and teachers at the Rose City Park location, do partial demolition of fire-damaged building areas and close the damaged building to the weather.  About $4.5 million will be available for reconstruction.
"The insurance does not quite cover the bare minimum to replace damaged areas of the building.  This minimum option means literally touching only those parts of the building that were damaged, not bringing the entire building up to current fire/life/safety or seismic codes, let alone improving basic classroom configurations, building flow, technology, etc."

Unlike Portland homeowners, who must limit repairs to the amount of insurance coverage, Smith wants a complete upgrade for the entire school, upgrades for seven other schools, and a little something in all the schools, whether they need it or not.

It's hard to believe that PPS is so thoroughly disconnected from its community that it asks for a budget of $625.5 million (including interest and insurance) instead of $370 million during a period where the economy is just scraping back from such a brutal recession.  What is possibly more disconcerting, however, is the cynicism inherent in the idea that the electorate will not vote for a school construction bond unless there's something in it for them.

So, in answer to the $548 million (which is really $625.5 million) bond, the answer is no.  But, if PPS asks for only what it needs ($370 million), the answer is yes, regardless of what its public relations firm tells you. 

For the $21,600 PPS paid their PR firm, they could have asked your voters.  We would have happily told you that floating the largest bond in its history immediately following the greatest recession since the Depression was a bad idea.

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