In wake of scandal, board hedges bets on May bond, angering Lincoln community


Jamie Bikales

Water bottles sit in front of a closed water fountain last year. Lead discovered in PPS drinking water resulted in the bond to rebuild Lincoln being pushed to May 2017.

When word spread that dangerous levels of lead had been found in Lincoln’s water supply, many in the school community reacted with surprise, fear and anger.

But the same people also had hope: a plan was afoot to float a $750 million bond measure this November that would pay to rebuild the 65-year-old school, as well as make needed safety improvements at other schools.

Then came word on July 25 that the Portland Public School board had decided to push the measure out by six months, meaning voters won’t consider it until next May.

Some school board members, including one Lincoln alum who is now a Lincoln parent, think the decision was wise and say they fully expect the measure to pass.

Others, however, including Lincoln’s principal, were disappointed in the shift.  Some even think the decision to move the vote may well have doomed it.

Board member Amy Kohnstamm, who represents Lincoln’s district on the school board, supported putting off the measure. Kohnstamm, a Cardinal alum and current Lincoln parent, said she is “very familiar with how crowded Lincoln is and the challenges Principal Chapman has to deal with every day relating to the facility” and said that she only made the decision because she believes putting the vote in May makes passage more likely, in addition to having no effect on the construction timeline.

She believes much of the community lost trust in PPS when reports revealed that the district had not only failed to test for lead, but covered up poor results when testing was done.

“We realized that before we go to the voters and ask for the biggest school bond in the history of the state of Oregon, we need to A, rebuild trust and credibility with PPS, and B, make sure we have a proposal that is really solid and clear and really makes sense,” Kohnstamm said.

A study to determine the exact cost of the improvements is estimated to take about six months. Rebuilding faith after the lead crisis may take just as long.

“It’s a massive ask of taxpayers, and our feeling as a board was that they deserve to know what they’re investing in,” Kohnstamm said.

Moreover, a new Lincoln is a small part of a 30-year plan to modernize every school in the district. A failed bond this November could derail that entire plan, said Kohnstamm, so she wants the bond to be put to the ballot at the best time for success.

In terms of what the district will do to rebuild trust in the six months ahead, Kohnstamm said many changes are coming as a result of the lead crisis, most notably a new superintendent and an improved management structure to improve accountability and prevent such crises from happening again.

In addition, if the bond passes in May, which Kohnstamm expects it will, there will be no delay in the modernization of the three high schools, and “very modest,” if any, delays in making the health and safety improvements in other schools, as opposed to passing the bond in November.

Committees at the schools slated for new buildings will continue the work on design they have been doing for a year so that when the bond passes in May, construction is ready to go, Kohnstamm said.

Though opponents have pointed out that no school bond has ever passed in May, Kohnstamm said that is “a bit of a misnomer because bonds typically are not put on the ballot in May.” She pointed to one bond PPS put on the ballot in May 2011 that was only defeated by 578 votes, or 0.48 percent. A type of tax measure that pays for teachers, called a levy, passed comfortably that same May. “We pass levies in May routinely, and big ones,” she said.

Most of the opposition to the board’s decision centers on the belief that a November bond is more likely to pass, contrary to the conclusion of the board.

Lincoln principal Peyton Chapman spoke out strongly in favor of November, writing an editorial in The Oregonian entitled “Our kids deserve an answer on schools this November.”

Chapman has many reasons why. This year, both supporters and opponents of another ballot item – Measure 97, or the gross receipts tax – have spent millions to get Multnomah County voters out to vote, she said. Not to mention, there was the Bernie Sanders’ campaign, which boosted voter registration among younger voters, who are more likely to support schools, she added.

“No one else will have spent millions of dollars getting voters out in May,” she said. “When I talk to young people, recent alums, they say things like, ‘I didn’t even know you could vote in May.’ Historically 20 percent of people show up in May.”

In addition, distractions in May will include three open seats on the school board and a possible $600 million bond measure by Portland Community College. And as time progresses, construction costs continue to rise and the current historically low interest rates could increase.

“There are a host of economic and political reasons why sooner is better than later,” Chapman said.

Senior Michael Ioffe agrees.

“Waiting will only ensure the district will have no funds to deal with the maintenance issue for quite a while because passing a bond in May is very unlikely,” said Ioffe, who testified in front of the school board about the issue Aug. 16. “It doesn’t matter how big the bond is in May, it could be 10 million dollars, it could be a billion dollars, it’s going to fail because the people who have a stake in schools don’t vote in May.”

Ioffe believes the argument that the district needs to ascertain the exact cost of the repairs before moving forward with the bond does not justify the postponement. “If the district is so certain of May’s success, they can try another bond then for additional funding,” he said.

In addition, Ioffe said he does not understand the district’s assertion that it needs to rebuild trust before it goes to the ballot. “I don’t understand how the district plans to build trust in the nine months ahead. Are they going to create a campaign? At this point with the lead issue in the news, the general public realizes they need to invest in schools.”

In response to the district’s argument that it does not want to prioritize only three schools, Ioffe said a better solution is moving forward with new constructions as soon as possible, rather than “band-aid fixes.”

“You’re pouring money into buildings that will be demolished anyway through the 30-year modernization plan. You basically pay twice,” he said.

Ioffe serves on Lincoln’s Master Planning Committee, which spent the last year planning the new building. “Being so close to having a Lincoln building, we had drawings and everything, it’s extremely upsetting to me,” he said. “I think every Lincoln student can tell you Lincoln needs to be rebuilt.”

Chapman is not just worried about Lincoln, but about three other schools on future ballots. “If [the bond] doesn’t pass, it also delays Jefferson, Cleveland and Wilson,” the three schools slated to be rebuilt in 2020 according to PPS’ 30-year plan. “Cleveland is already over capacity,” she said.

Senior Marin Christensen, one of Lincoln’s ASB co-presidents, also spoke out strongly against the board’s decision, testifying at a board meeting and meeting with several members of the board and the newly appointed interim superintendent. She is frustrated that the board ignored public opinion, the consensus of all nine high school principals and presentations by pollsters who showed the board that November has a higher chance of success.

“We had political strategists do polling for us. 87 percent of millennials said they would support the bond. With a May vote, you lose about 20 times the amount of young people that show up in November,” Christensen said.

Statistics on voter turnout from previous primary and special elections in Portland held in May seem to support Christensen’s view. The last May special election with no major political offices at stake, in 2015, only attracted 18 percent of voters.

In addition, May 2017 lacks significant other political races that could bring out the vote, such as a closely contested Democratic primary or a mayoral race, both of which occurred in May of this year. However, even those two events combined only brought of 56 percent of Multnomah County voters this May, compared to 83 percent in the 2012 November election, according to the Multnomah County Elections Division.

The refusal of the board to change  its decision leaves “the only option at this point a student strike, which I am strongly against,” Christensen said.

Christensen and Ioffe will graduate in the spring, but feel obliged to support a new Lincoln as much as they can. Christensen said she only is doing what she feels is her job as ASB co-president: to “do what will benefit the most students for the longest period of time.”

She worries about the implications of not rebuilding the school. “We might be hosting the next Bill Gates in our school, but we would never know it because he had radon poisoning and had to go home sick or went to a private school instead.”

Ioffe agrees. “I’m a senior, if I feel let down by the district it doesn’t matter, what matters is that we ensure a better educational experience for future students and the only way to provide that is by rebuilding schools.”

One aspect that all parties agree on is that student advocacy will be key to passing a bond if it is pushed back to May.

“There is no better ambassador talking about how important it is to invest in our schools than students,” Kohnstamm said. As the vote approaches, the district will recruit students to canvass, or take materials door-to-door.

“Since the Bond is now in May, we will all need to help get behind an urgent grass roots campaign to get out positive votes. Students are so talented, and I don’t think we’ll find a student who doesn’t think [the rebuild] is a top priority,” Chapman said. “It would be hands-on, engaging work where they could apply the skills the public schools have given them.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email