This November, Portland Public Schools is asking voters to support a $1.2 billion bond to fund continued work modernizing the district’s high schools. If passed, the bond would complete work that’s already begun at Benson Polytechnic High School, overhaul Jefferson High School, and pay for designs and plans for Cleveland High School and Wilson High School.
It took months for the district to land on its bond package, especially as COVID-19 made everything virtual and created new priorities for the district.
The district’s bond committee had been considering a smaller bond package, focused on “critical investments” in safety and new curriculum, while punting the bigger projects to 2022, when district officials hoped they wouldn’t be dealing with a pandemic.
That thinking seemed to shift at a school board work session in June.
The school board went from discussing four bond options to six. The two new options included money to start rebuilding Jefferson High School.
The board also heard public comment in the work session, an unusual occurrence. One of the commenters was Multnomah County Commissioner Susheela Jayapal.
“A rebuilt Jefferson would be a concrete — literally and figuratively — investment in our Black communities,” Jayapal said during the June 2 meeting.
“It would reinforce an anchor; and it would help create the conditions for moving the needle on the stubborn educational inequities experienced by Black students in the Portland Public School system.”
And as PPS asked for community input in bond planning over the summer, it became clear that there was interest in more than just new windows or textbooks.
In addition to the funds for high schools, this year’s bond includes plans and investment in a Center for Black Student Excellence.
PPS board member Julia Brim-Edwards, who is leading the bond campaign, said it’s a step forward in the district’s support for its Black students.
“The leadership of the district is acutely aware that many Black students in Portland have not been historically well served or supported by the school district, and that we need to make a very concerted effort from kindergarten through high school to be supporting those students,” Brim-Edwards said.
Longtime education activist Ronnie Herndon is happy to see Jefferson make the cut.
“A lot of us have been upset over the years that it never made the list for a makeover during the last several bonds that they put before the public,” Herndon said.
A famous photo of Herndon from 1982 shows him standing on a desk during a protest against the closure of Harriet Tubman Middle School. Tubman reopened as a middle school two years ago.
Today, Herndon is director of Albina Head Start, and recently, has spoken out about racial injustice in Portland in light of protests against police brutality.
With the bond, Herndon sees Jefferson and related projects as an opportunity to play a role in decisions that will impact current and future students in the Albina neighborhood.
“It gives Albina a very unique opportunity to address the lack of student achievement in the Black community to be addressed in a comprehensive way once and for all,” Herndon said.
“That’s our hope.”
The bond would also fund projects affecting students across Oregon’s largest district. Money to update curriculum and outdated textbooks. Funds to make the main floors of every PPS building accessible to people with disabilities. Update locks and security systems.
“They may not see it, but they’ll certainly appreciate it when there’s not a leaking roof, or the HVAC system is not working in the middle of the winter, and there’s no heat,” Brim-Edwards said.
The list of the bond’s supporters on the campaign website includes parents and principals, as well as former and current elected officials representing Portland, Multnomah County, and the state.
There is no known organized opposition to the measure.
But there have been concerns about past bonds, especially after an audit found cost estimates for PPS' 2017 bond were lower than professional contractors said they would be.
Brim-Edwards said the district has hired two auditors since 2017, plus there will be bond performance audits as projects continue.
“This time, we asked the Bond Accountability Committee... to look at the cost estimation processes that the district had used and share their expertise and validate that the district was using appropriate methodologies to do the cost estimates,” Brim-Edwards said. “They’ve done that.”
PPS said the bond is a renewal for voters, maintaining the current tax rate from the 2017 bond - $2.50 per $1,000 of assessed value.
The PPS bond may not raise taxes, but it does have a financial challenge this fall. It is appearing on a ballot crowded with money measures - from a housing measure Metro is advocating, to library and parks referrals from the city of Portland, to a Multnomah County tax measure to fund preschool programs.
With the PPS bond on voter’s ballots this fall, Brim-Edwards said the district wants to continue what it started. She points to already-finished projects at Franklin, Grant and Roosevelt to highlight the district’s work so far.
“We’re building 100-year buildings. How do we make them buildings that are relevant in 2020 and 2030 and 2040 and really serve students no matter what decade they are?” Brim-Edwards said.