PORTLAND, Maine — As expected, the City Council delayed its decision Wednesday on a $70.6 million bond proposal forwarded by the Board of Education to fund long-needed renovations at four elementary schools. Instead, the council voted unanimously to create a special committee to study the issue — the seventh such task force since 1994.
The proposal to fund renovations at Presumpscot, Longfellow, Reiche and Lyseth schools will be reviewed by a group of four councilors and four board members.
By creating the committee, the council hopes to find a way to fund renovations — which most councilors and school board members appear to support in principle — that will maximize opportunities to win state funding and minimize the burden on Portland taxpayers.
But in doing so the city government also has ensured that a decision is at least several months away and will not come in time to put the question before Portland voters during the November general election, when voter turnout is likely to be high.
“I’m not optimistic that this will be ready in time for this November, but I wouldn’t want to wait until next November,” councilor Nicholas Mavodones, who chairs the finance committee, said. Mavodones also said that the council could call a special election for the issue, at it did before for the largely state-funded renovations to Hall Elementary School.
The school board approved the $70 million proposal in late June. It originally was supposed to be reviewed by the council’s Finance Committee. Following that review, the proposal would have needed to win seven votes between the mayor and eight city councilors by Sept. 7 to make it on to the November ballot.
But with Mavodones and several other councilors expressing public concern over the idea of borrowing $70 million, the council instead opted to workshop the proposal with the school board.
The motion for the ad hoc committee was put forward by Mavodones along with Mayor Ethan Strimling, who recently described the facilities at Portland elementary schools as “unequal” and the 20-year delay in renovations “amoral.”
But during Wednesday’s meeting, Strimling stressed that “it’s much more important that we get it [the renovation funding] right than we get it fast” — though many Portland residents, including school board members, worried the new process would be too slow.
“Portland is a very process-heavy city, but this is really doing that to the max,” said Bryan Wentzell, whose child attends one of the schools. Several other Portland residents, including 10-year school board member Sarah Thompson, asked the council to set a deadline on the special committees work, with one calling it “analysis paralysis.”
The ad hoc committee’s review will be preceded by a council workshop, likely on July 18, according to Strimling. If a bond proposal — for $70 million or some other sum — makes it out of the special committee, it will be sent back to the school board, which will review it and decide whether to send it back to the council. From there, it will again face review by the finance committee and finally, the entire City Council, before Portlanders can vote on it.
Councilors David Brenerman, Justin Costa, Nicholas Mavodones and Mayor Ethan Strimling will represent the city. The school board will be represented by Anna Trevorrow, Sarah Thompson, Stephanie Hatzenbueler and Chairwoman Marnie Morrione. Many of the same people will be involved in multiple stages of the process.
School board and council members have repeatedly stated their interest in maximizing state funding for school renovations. The only school presently on the docket for money from Augusta is Longfellow, but school board Chair Marnie Morrione said she has received word that the Maine Department of Education will soon consider adding new schools.
“The indication from the state is that by the fall they will reopen application to get on the list,” Morrione said.