Portland Public Schools is starting plans for a bond measure in 2020. What’s expected to be another nine-figure ask of voters might divert from the facilities plans set years ago, which prioritized renovations across high schools.

There’s at least one high school that should still be front-and-center as the state’s largest school district considers going to voters again in less than two years. That’s because cost overruns and overly optimistic construction plans have left one major high school project from the 2017 PPS bond drastically underfunded.

Last year’s $790 million bond was supposed to rebuild four large schools: three high schools and one middle school, in addition to $150 million in health and safety improvements — particularly remediation of districtwide lead in school drinking water. Over the last several months, the PPS board has approved plans for Lincoln and Madison high schools, as well as Kellogg Middle School, under the 2017 bond. But it’s short of funds to overhaul Benson Polytechnic High School, Portland’s magnet for career-technical education.

Benson Polytechnic High School in Portland, Oregon.

Benson Polytechnic High School in Portland, Oregon.

Alan Sylvestre/OPB

School district officials are working on a resolution to bring to board members on Dec. 18. The 11-page draft summarizes the context for the 2020 bond, including the limited funds available to rebuild Benson under the 2017 bond funds.

It documents that the 2017 bond plans told voters that the Benson project would cost $202 million. But after committing money to other projects, including Lincoln and Madison high schools, Kellogg Middle School, and the health and safety priorities, the bond has only $78 million left for Benson. At the same time, Benson’s costs have gone up dramatically.

“The proposed Benson Campus Master Plan target budget, based on current cost estimates and forecast data, is $296,000,000,” said the draft resolution.

That leaves Benson $218 million short and at the top of the list of priorities for 2020.

But what else is in the bond is up for debate. Going back to before the 2012 bond, PPS has conceived of its facilities plans on a 30-year horizon, or longer. The goal has been to rebuild or substantially renovate all of the district’s deteriorating buildings. For years, district leaders had prioritized overhauling the high schools first — so that students wouldn’t endure the inconvenience of major construction projects multiple times during their academic careers.

But that strategy is among the many questions that PPS is now asking, as it begins a new look at its aging buildings. Three high schools are already completely rebuilt, or will be soon, with funds from the 2012 bond: Franklin (rebuilt), Grant (under construction) and Roosevelt (rebuilt).

Three more are part of the 2017 bond: Benson, Lincoln and Madison. The 2017 bond also included planning money for the three remaining high school campuses that haven’t had major construction efforts under the previous two bonds: Cleveland, Jefferson and Wilson.

But just because “high schools first” had been the plan for years, and the three remaining high schools were called out in the 2017 bond, doesn’t mean that course is definite. Top officials this week said the pattern of dedicating the lion’s share of construction money to high schools may not continue into the 2020 bond. 

Deputy superintendent Claire Hertz said whether those are prioritized depends on a new facilities’ analysis and a public process.

“What are the priorities of our community? Is it safety and security at all of our schools? Is it doing the high schools first?” Hertz asked in an interview with OPB.

“We need to hear from our community about what the priorities are.”

Board member Julia Brim-Edwards said it would be “premature” to assume that the high schools would, or would not be a major feature of the 2020 bond, as they were in 2012 and 2017. She noted that the current board can’t commit a future board to anything — including what might be part of the construction bond. And who’s on the board may be quite different by the time 2020 rolls around.

“A majority of the board could change,” Brim-Edwards told OPB recently, noting the odd-year election cycle. Brim-Edwards, as well as Scott Bailey and chair Rita Moore have board terms that run through June 2021. But Paul Anthony, Julie Esparza Brown, Amy Kohnstamm and Mike Rosen are all up for re-election in 2019.

Even the part of the bond that seems most certain — that Benson will be part of it — is fraught. Benson supporters are calling for the district to support an enlarged career-technical program at the magnet, or “focus option” high school. PPS board members have approved resolutions in the past, signaling support for Benson to have as many as 1,700 students. But in part due to district-imposed enrollment caps and transfer restrictions, Benson has fewer than 1,000 students at last count (in 2017-18).

Complicating matters further is that PPS is searching for a permanent home for Alliance, an alternative high school that’s currently housed on the Benson campus.

PPS has not floated how much money would be raised in the 2020 bond. Officials said the goal is to keep the tax rate the same for property owners in 2020 and for years after — meaning, as the amount levied by previous bond measures go down, new bonds, like the one in 2020, would kick in.