Portland Schools Bond Is $89 Million Over Budget Just 1 Year In

By Rob Manning (OPB)
Portland, Ore. May 1, 2018 12:09 a.m.
A drinking fountain at Rose City Park School in Portland has been closed because elevated levels of lead were found in some schools' water. Districts around Portland are also testing their water to make sure it is safe.

A drinking fountain at Rose City Park School in Portland has been closed because elevated levels of lead were found in some schools' water. Districts around Portland are also testing their water to make sure it is safe.

Jonathan House / Portland Tribune

The 2017 bond measure Portland voters approved is already over budget — around $89 million to be precise.

Portland school board members reacted with shock Monday to budget figures that explain why.

Basically, the largest bond in Oregon history should have been even bigger.

Board members Amy Kohnstamm and Rita Moore both used the word "delusional," when comparing what Portland Public Schools staff discussed internally and what voters ultimately saw as a bond package last May.

Figures from district staff show that the $790 million bond promised much cheaper projects than internal cost estimates suggested were possible. Benson and Madison high schools were promised at a combined $60 million less than the cheapest estimate.

Kohnstamm chaired the school board's bond committee last year.

"It sounds like some of the estimates that were given to us were based on some very aggressive assumptions – but that's not how it was presented at the time," Kohnstamm said.  

At a board work session Monday, board chair Julia Brim-Edwards pointed to polling that showed voters were marginally more likely to approve a bond costing $750 million instead of one worth $850 million. Brim-Edwards and other board members suggest those figures led district officials to present lower cost estimates.

Senior Director of School Modernization Dan Jung shared a detailed spreadsheet based on the original "hard costs" of rebuilding or renovating Madison, Lincoln and Benson high schools and Kellogg Middle School — the four major projects on the 2017 bond.

Jung, who took over the Office of School Modernization after the 2017 bond measure was crafted and approved, showed the board project estimates based on “conservative,” “middle of the road,” or “aggressive” assumptions of “soft costs” (such as permits and architects) and “escalation” (the amount costs might rise from year-to-year).

Related: PPS Cuts Jobs At Central Office As Key Leaders Resign


At Madison High School, the range of “aggressive” to “conservative” goes from $170 million to $199 million. The amount for Madison used to calculate the bond request of voters was $146 million.

Similarly, Benson High’s range was between $236 million and $278 million for a full rebuild of the district’s career technical high school. But the amount assumed for the bond was $202 million.

Officials underestimated the cost of the Kellogg Middle School project the most, as a percentage of its total project cost. Its cheapest estimate was $66 million, based on Jung’s calculations on original “hard costs.” For the bond, Kellogg was slated to cost just $45 million.

The revelations took old and new board members by surprise.

School board member Rita Moore was not on the board last year when the package was put together and presented to voters.

“Now we’re in a situation where the ballot measure that was presented to voters drastically underestimated the costs of the projects that were promised to voters,” Moore said. “For future reference, I want to know how that happened.”

Moore told fellow board members she is worried in a district that struggles to build trust with parents and voters, lowballing the bond projects is a big problem.

"I think there was something desperately and fundamentally wrong with the process that led to the bond package — and we have to do a thorough analysis of what the hell happened here," Moore said.

"This is putting in jeopardy the long-range plan for PPS facilities renovation for the next 50 years. We are going to have to be so squeaky clean going forward," she added. 

Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero started months after the bond passed and said he will look into what happened. Guerrero asked Jung at the Monday work session if staffers like him were familiar with the higher cost estimates. Jung said other staffers were aware, but board members insisted that information had never been shared up the chain to them.

District leaders on the bond, including the chief financial officer Yousef Awwad and chief operating officer Jerry Vincent, have since left. Portland Public Schools announced Vincent resigned last week, amid cuts to central office staff. It also coincided with the first revelations of the 2017 bond's projected overruns.

"It has become clear to me over the past several weeks that budgets established in early 2017 for the May 2017 bond measure were insufficient for the proposed middle and high school modernization projects," Guerrero said in a written statement. "This is deeply troubling and I am committed to identifying how we ended up in this situation and to making sure it does not happen in the future."

Guerrero said he intends to maintain the same high standards for the new buildings as resulted from the 2012 bond.

But the projects are $89 million over budget, even after some efforts to reduce the scope and find efficiencies in the large capital projects.

Guerrero said the district does not plan to curtail its efforts to address health and safety upgrades.

"This includes the replacement of water fixtures, to remedy lead concerns at schools throughout the district," Guerrero said.