Friday, May 20, 2011

An open letter to PPS Superintendent Carole Smith: why we said no

Dear Superintendent. Smith,
After publicly stating that it was your goal to persuade voters to approve new construction "until all the schools have received the overhauls the district says they need," it must have been quite a shock when a your well advertised campaign resulted in a resounding "no."  How could that have happened?
Who does NOT heart Portland Schools?
Does that mean that you wasted the $21,600 you paid research firm Davis, Hibbits and Midghall to tell you voters would say "yes" if you added something for ALL schools (not just the ones that needed it)?  What's another $178 million, when EVERYBODY gets a little something?
Also, you made the bond issue sound positively miniscule by not including that pesky $77.5 million interest and insurance costs we'd have to pay.  $625.5 million does sound like a lot more than $548 million.  Voters won't notice. 
You even went to the trouble to underestimate the real interest cost by promising to do the very thing guaranteed it high.  You would finance the long term bond by renegotiating interest rates every few years, when every economist under the sun is warning that interest rates are going up.  I guess you thought that, if voters didn't notice that you didn't include the interest or insurance they'd pay, they certainly wouldn't notice that the terms of the deal were bad.
The plastic surgeons in Portland probably loved your co-chair's quote, "Anyone needs a face-lift after 65 years," but apparently some of the other voters didn't.  Talking about elective plastic surgery when 9.6% of the city's workers are looking for a job may have been a bit of a misstep, but maybe you thought that if they don't work, they may not vote. 
But, it turned out, even the Portland voters with jobs notice that the value of their homes was down 29% from its peak, while their property taxes were rising up at least 3% a year.  Of course, you tried to soothe homeowners by saying that, the average voter would only be paying $300 more.  You didn't expect them to know the difference between median and average.  You couldn't have known that they'd figure out that half of them would be paying more than $300.  You relied on the voters, who paid out money for salmon and elephants to pony up for the kids.
All you needed to do is show the poor little kids with ceiling tiles raining down on their heads, pointing to signs that read "asbestos," and entering through warped, unpainted doors.  Surely the voters would heart schools.
On the other hand, maybe it was the older voters that killed it.  They may not have liked that "everybody needs a face-lift after 65 years" comment as much as the plastic surgeons.  And they may have listened to local professor Dr. Eric Fuits, with two young children in Portland schools, that recommended a "no" vote.    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."  That may have upset them more than you thought.
So, where should you go from here?  Perhaps you should recognize that there is a national wave of voter disapproval of wasteful spending.  Take your cue from Washington politicians, who are recognizing that unnecessary spending will cost them their jobs.
And definitely hire a new research firm.  You got some bad advice.


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