Plans for a Portland Public Schools bond are likely to take a new direction in the wake of the widespread concerns about drinking water problems.
Members of the Portland school board’s bond committee say if the district is going to ask voters for a bond on the November ballot, then remediating safety concerns such as lead piping, lead paint and asbestos must be a significant part.
Communities across the Northwest were shocked recently to discover dangerously high lead levels in their water. How did this happen, and what’s being done to fix the problem?
“With the health and safety of our students, teachers, and staff as our top priority, it seems increasingly clear that any potential bond measure the board considers for referral to the November ballot must first address these core issues,” bond committee chair Amy Kohnstamm wrote in a letter to the full school board. “We then anticipate considering how we can pair these needs with full modernization of the three high schools that have been in master planning.”
The bond committee has already received draft plans to rebuild three high schools — at a potential cost of more than $600 million — as the possible foundation of a fall bond measure. Portland school officials have said that voters see the value in seismic improvements the district started with a 2012 bond measure.
But there’s a limit to how big a bond voters are likely to support, which means eventually the school board must wrestle with what to take out.
Kohnstamm has suggested that “summer projects” — smaller construction efforts that aren’t total rebuilds of schools — could be re-prioritized. Kohnstamm offered the possibility of putting off new science labs, for instance, to make room for lead and asbestos remediation.
Fellow bond committee member Paul Anthony agrees with adding lead remediation to a possible bond.
“Given the mood of the voters, it’ll be essential to have that there,” Anthony said. “It would be critical to passing the bond and is clearly the right thing to do — for kids and the district.”
But Anthony would make room for lead in the bond plan a different way. In spite of having a family connection to Benson High School, Anthony suggested removing the rebuild of Benson from the list of bond projects. It carried the highest price tag of any of the high school master plans at around $250 million.
“At this point, as a Benson parent, I don’t think we can have Benson on the bond,” Anthony said. “Benson is just too big. Given what we know the mood of the voters, we can’t have a bond that’s that big.”
Anthony said he would rather include Benson on a later bond measure than scale back plans for remaking the district’s career-technical high school.
Anthony admitting feeling concerned about whether the district can rally support for a bond this fall. Kohnstamm noted an ambivalence among Portlanders in her letter to colleagues: “Clearly our district has work to do to restore trust and accountability,” she wrote. “At the same time, the community seems to recognize the dire state of the infrastructure of our aging buildings.”
The bond committee asked for cost estimates to address lead and other problems for its next meeting. But those numbers may be hard to pin down until district-wide lead testing concludes this summer.