Advice on Portland Public School bond: narrow the scope and regain our trust first

When I attended a city budget forum in the cafeteria of Portland’s Cleveland High School a few years ago, I was saddened by how run down my old alma mater had become. The floors were worn, the paint was shoddy and the restroom, which I recall used to smell of urinal stones, now simply smelled of urine. Clearly, the old girl had been neglected for far too long. But despite the obvious need, I can’t support the half-billion dollar modernization bond measure proposed by Portland Public Schools. It’s too ambitious, too uncertain, too expensive.

Many of our local leaders say investing in education is the long-term solution to our poor economy. They insist that top-flight companies are not locating here because we lack the educated workforce such companies require.

When you point out the number of people with B.A.s, MBAs and even Ph.D.s who are serving up coffee drinks or waiting tables in Portland, they respond that those graduates don’t have degrees in the fields desired by perspective employers.

I’m not willing to concede that point, but even if I were, I remember the early days of the space race and the national push for engineers. By the time ambitious young people completed their four-year programs after heeding that call, there was a glut of engineers but teachers and nurses were in short supply. And even if we could develop that workforce more quickly, no one can really say what the jobs are supposed to be. Green somehow. That’s about it.

We’re told that if we make this investment in our public schools, we’ll see a dramatic improvement in our students’ academic performance and better graduation rates. We’re told that a better learning environment will lead to better learning. That makes sense, up to a point, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to better teaching or better parental involvement.

Public education should be government’s highest priority after public safety. Despite this, we continue to divert huge amounts of taxpayer money through urban renewal schemes for light rail and transit-oriented development. And just as with Portland’s fire trucks or TriMet’s buses, taxpayers are asked to go to the well to fund the basics. Many taxpayers are skeptical that the bond, if approved, will even meet the goals of the modernization plan.

They have good reason to be skeptical. In the last decade we’ve seen numerous examples of massive public investments either failing to meet the stated goals or the original estimates being so far off that the project costs quadrupled or quintupled. Portland’s aerial tram morphed from a cocktail napkin design estimate of $18 million to $60 million. Portland has wasted more than $60 million in two botched computer system implementations. The state Department of Motor Vehicles had a similar fiasco. The most recent example, exposed by The Oregonian as, if not outright fraud, then blatant misrepresentation by the project’s managers, is the wireless interoperability network. Hundreds of millions of dollars were sucked into a black hole with hundreds of millions still needed for completion. Based on history, why wouldn’t we assume that our half-billion invested in schools will really accomplish only a quarter of what’s promised?

Here’s what I’d go for: Tone it down and narrow the scope. Go ahead and replace those aging boilers and weatherize the buildings. Catch up on some of the deferred maintenance. Fix up the science labs. Offer us a bond that is less ambitious and less expensive. Meet the stated goals and then show us the improved academic performance. If the district can show us a real return on a smaller investment, then maybe, just maybe, it can begin to regain our trust.

Dave Lister is a small-business owner who served on Portland’s Small Business Advisory Council.