A Closer Look at Portland’s $548 Million School Modernization Proposal: Biggest Bang for Your Buck?

Lindsay BerschauerCascade Commentary

The Portland Public School District will hold a public hearing tonight (12/1) at 5:30 pm concerning its $548 million School Modernization Bond Measure.

The District is arguing that such an expensive bond, the largest local bond in Oregon state history, is necessary to tear down and rebuild only eight of the 85 schools in the District. For those eight schools, they have allocated $372 million. The other $176 million is earmarked for minor upgrades to other schools and paying off previous school improvement debt that the District has incurred. The goal? The District argues that the new schools will increase property values in Portland, improve student achievement and behavior and increase enrollment. But in this down economy, are Portland residents getting the biggest bang for their buck when it comes to the cost value of these “rebuild” schools?

The following is the testimony Lindsay Berschauer has prepared for the public hearing.

The breakdown of the costs associated with rebuilding includes $90-92M for Cleveland High, $82-86M for Roosevelt, $48-52M for Jefferson, an average of $30M for each of the five primary schools, and $6M just for the pre-planning process of rebuilding Lincoln High. Now, let’s compare the Portland School Bond Measure to the 2008 Capital Bond Program in the Wilsonville/West Linn School District. As part of that bond measure, the District is building two brand-new schools: Trillium Creek Primary School in West Linn and Lowrie Primary School in Wilsonville. Trillium will be a 60,000-square-foot building costing $28 million and serving 500 kids. In contrast, Roosevelt High in Portland is a roughly 42,000-square-foot building serving about 680 kids. So, the cost to rebuild Roosevelt is three times the cost to build a bigger, new Trillium school. If both of these schools will be essentially “brand new” and similar in size, why is PPS proposing to spend almost $56M more on Roosevelt High? *** SEE ADDENDUM BELOW

While living in Olympia, Washington for the past several years, I was involved with a commercial construction company that built and renovated almost 20 primary and secondary public schools, many more than are proposed in the first phase of the PPS bond measure. I am familiar with the costs of building a brand-new school and what a significant renovation project typically costs. Most of our school renovation projects were in the neighborhood of $20-$35 million, depending on the size of the school.

The most expensive school we ever built was a state-of-the-art high school in Tacoma, Washington for roughly $42.5M. The school is 148,000 square feet (over three times larger than Roosevelt in Portland). The cost included demolition of the old school, brand-new buildings, high-end interior finishes and professional-grade gymnasium facilities. The Tacoma school is comparable in size to Portland’s Cleveland High, which is roughly 200,000 square feet. Yet, Portland taxpayers are being asked to spend more than double the price tag of the brand-new, state-of-the-art Tacoma high school. For this amount of money, Portland taxpayers had better get a high school paved in gold.

It should concern every Portland resident that PPS has completely inflated the costs associated with making the necessary repairs on its schools. Another example of excess is Marysville school, which has been sitting vacant due to a 2009 fire in a portion of the building. Instead of using insurance money to fix the damages (total cost $5 million), the School District wants to tear down the whole school and rebuild (total cost somewhere around $30 million). In addition, many of the schools slated to be rebuilt exist in historic buildings that are more than 60 years old. The District has promised to maintain the historical integrity of these buildings, adding huge cost premiums to the construction budget. In this time of economic uncertainty, it seems prudent for PPS to address the school structural issues and the scope of work with restraint.

Whether you own your home or rent a house or apartment, every Portland resident will pay for this Bond through property tax increases or rent increases. Approximately 60% of Portland residents are homeowners and 40% are renters. Thus, a big chunk of this bond measure likely will be paid for by renters, as landlords pass on their new tax burdens in the form of rent increases. PPS claims that the additional tax burden on homeowners will average about $350 per year for the next six years. But remember, this is just phase one. PPS wants to completely rebuild all 85 schools in the District within the next 30 years, which means your increased tax burden will remain, if not increase further, over the next three decades.

With unemployment rates still high in Portland and many residents under-employed, families are tightening their belts and cutting costs wherever possible to make ends meet. Portland residents cannot afford such a significant increase in their taxes. Portland Public Schools needs to prioritize the immediate structural repair needs of its schools and present taxpayers with a cost-effective, limited proposal that will not unduly burden virtually every adult (and their children) living inside its boundaries.

***I need to clarify my comparisons with Roosevelt High. When I originally looked up square footage on the school, the plot map was unclear and seemed to show that the plot of land on which Roosevelt sits is 170,000 sq ft and the building footprint is only 1/4 of that. I have since clarified (and met with the custodian of Roosevelt High to confirm) that the plot of land the building sits on is approximately 270,000 sq ft and the building footprint breaks down into ~167,000 sq ft of main building and ~43,000 sq ft of basement. After visiting the school and seeing how the buildings are situated, I’m comfortable saying that the actual school space is approximately 170,000 sq ft, with a separate area/storage space of approximately 50,000 sq ft that includes the boiler system. If you compare Roosevelt High with the Tacoma high school I talked about in my commentary, you will see that the argument is still the same. It’s actually a better comparison than Trillium because the square footages are much more similar (Tacoma school: ~150,000 sq ft) and they are both high schools. The cost to build the Tacoma high school was $42.5M, and the cost to “rebuild” Roosevelt is slated to be $86M. I have seen no justification as to why it will cost double to rebuild Roosevelt, other than the fact that the School District wants to historically renovate the building, meaning much higher construction costs. My underlying argument (besides that the scope of work is unwarranted) is that the District is trying to shake a money tree that has no more money on it. Ultimately, everything comes down to money; and most Portland families cannot afford this tax increase. I believe when Portland residents sit down to vote on this measure, the cost will be the single most important factor in making their decision. – Lindsay Berschauer

Lindsay Berschauer is a research associate with Cascade Policy Institute in Portland, Oregon, where she currently resides. She is originally from Arizona but has lived in the Northwest since 2002. From 2006 until spring 2010, Lindsay lived in Olympia, Washington and was part-owner of a commercial construction company that built and renovated almost 20 primary/secondary schools in the State of Washington.

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