Renovating all four rundown elementary schools

In November 2017, Portland voters passed a $64 million bond to renovate the city's four rundown elementary schools—Reiche, Presumpscot, Longfellow, and Lyseth. The bond passed overwhelmingly, with 77% of the vote in District 2 and 65% citywide. Emily is proud to have led that campaign.

Emily started working on the issue in 2015 and, for the last three months of the campaign, left her job at MoveOn to run the campaign full time as a volunteer. (After passing the bond, MoveOn hired her back.) Emily now serves on the committee overseeing the renovations, and the work is underway! Lyseth is the first school being renovated, and we're scheduled to break ground on the project next spring.

But because the state is shifting education funding to poorer districts, the district is now considering closing and consolidating schools, including those the voters just overwhelmingly decided to rebuild. The district is doing an enrollment and facilities study—similar to what was done for the elementary schools in 2012 in laying the groundwork for the school bond.

Closing neighborhood schools is not the answer. The voters have already spoken to say that these four schools all need to be renovated.

And the renovations are long overdue. Students at the four schools are taught in hallways, mechanical closets, and trailers. The schools fail to meet 21st century standards and codes, and they have asbestos and fire hazards.

The #1 problem at Reiche, an open-concept school, is the noise. The building lacks walls between the classrooms, and the ambient noise is far above acceptable decibel levels, making it hard to concentrate and learn.

School facilities have a profound impact on student outcomes. School facilities affect students' health, behavior, self-esteem, engagement, learning, and achievement. Students who attend new or updated schools report feeling safer and more proud, and they better enjoy school. No child in Portland should attend crumbling, substandard schools.

For 23 years, city officials debated what to do about the condition of the elementary schools, convening seven different task forces and hiring architectural firms six different times to develop plans. The cost of renovating the schools doubled in the decades city leaders spun their wheels.

To be clear: School construction and renovation is a local responsibility, and Portland hadn’t made a major investment in the city’s school buildings since the early 1990s. During that nearly one-quarter of a century, communities all around us have been busy passing local bonds to build new schools and renovate old schools.

Some people ask, "What about the state?" The state rejected Portland's requests to pay to renovate the four elementary schools four times over 16 years. Moreover, the state program is for the worst of the worst schools statewide and was never meant to be the sole source of school construction funding for Portland or any other municipality.

It took the community coming together to pass the bond and fix the schools. Thousands of people across the city were involved. They testified before the school board, ad hoc committee on school facilities, and city council. They attended rallies, contacted their school board reps and city councilors, and signed postcards and petitions in support of fixing all four schools. The Portland Education Association, building and construction trades, and more than 100 Portland businesses helped out. And last summer and fall, volunteers knocked on more than 25,000 doors across the city to educate voters about the poor conditions of the elementary schools and the confusing ballot with two competing school bond questions. During the last four days before the vote, volunteers filled 165 3-hour shifts to connect with voters before Election Day.

And now that the bond has passed and we have a plan to fix the elementary schools, the city has applied to the state to renovate two of our high schools, which are bigger and more expensive projects. In June, the state released its initial priority list, and Portland High is 15th on the list. PATHs also made the list and is 25th. This is great news for Portland.

Passing the bond is a testament to the power of people coming together to make change in their own communities. Emily is committed to making sure all four elementary schools are renovated.

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