PORTLAND, Maine — On Monday night, the city council is set to vote on the long and hard debated question of borrowing money to renovate some of the city’s aging elementary schools.
Portland officials have been looking at the issue and the impact it would have on local taxes for more than a year, but will not vote directly on the question Monday. Rather, they will vote on whether Portlanders should be allowed to decide the issue as ballot initiative.
In addition to the plan to renovate four schools with $64 million borrowed on the bond market — a slimmed-down version of the school board’s original proposal — the council will look at a proposal to bond $32 million to fix two schools while seeking state funding for the other two, and a third plan to borrow $24 million for repairs mostly at a single school. Voters may see all, none or some of these plans on a future ballot.
Whether and how much money to borrow to renovate city schools has been the pivotal political issue in Portland over the last year. Here’s what you need to know ahead of the 5 p.m. meeting in City Hall’s council chambers.
Under the four-school plan, renovations are proposed for Portland’s Presumpscot, Longfellow, Reiche and Lyseth elementary schools. They have various facilities issues but none has seen major renovations in the last 40 to 60 years.
The plan to renovate four schools has gradually won full-throated support from six of the nine city council members, but would need a supermajority of seven votes to be passed along to voters.
City Councilor Jill Duson, Belinda Ray and Nicholas Mavodones have expressed concern with the burden borrowing $64 million would put on taxpayers and held out hope for winning state funding for the schools. Duson and Mavodones are advocating for borrowing $32 million to renovate Lyseth and Presumpscot while trying to get state funding for the other two. Ray has said she’d support passing the four-school plan on to voters if they are also presented with a proposal to borrow $24 million, mostly for work at Lyseth.
Parent activists and a progressive political group have pushed hard for the plan to renovate four schools, which was also a key issue in Mayor Ethan Strimling’s State of the City speech.
The bottom line
Borrowing $64 million in stages over the next six years would, with interest, result in an overall debt of about $92 million. Over the more than two-decade life of the bond, the bond and debt service would add $1,128 in property taxes for each $100,000 of home valuation, according to the city. For instance, with property taxes forecasted to increase by 3.1 percent over a 26-year period, the owner of a $240,000 home could expect the bond to add an average of $104 to their taxes each year for its duration.
The city council has a goal of raising property taxes by no more than 2.5 percent in the next fiscal year, while the school budget calls for bumping up the schools’ portion of the property taxes by 6.5 percent.
Portland’s schools will require a total of $321 million in facilities work over the next two decades, according to the city’s draft capital plan.
Monday’s vote is the culmination of the seventh concerted effort since the mid-1990s to improve facilities at Portland’s older elementary schools, according to a district timeline of facilities work.
Between 1994 and 2013, according to the timeline, Portland has formed task forces and hired architecture firms to develop plans for how to improve the facilities of the city’s aging elementary schools six separate times. In 2013, the city council shot down a bond proposal for the same four elementary schools, preferring to focus on renovating Hall Elementary School. Those renovations were funded by the state last year.