Portland has money for light rail & bike lanes, but not schools

by Dave Lister

For those of us in opposition, the narrow defeat of the obscenely expensive Portland Public Schools construction bond was a miracle on the order of the parting of the Red Sea. Not only did the supporters of the measure have more than a million dollars to spend against an underfunded and loosely organized opposition, but they also had the school district itself pressing the envelope of electioneering like I’ve never seen.

A mail piece from PPS arrived at my home just before the election under the guise of “public information.” It showed how badly the schools were in disrepair, explained the urgency of getting on with rebuilding, and proclaimed that, despite it all, the district was still doing a great job educating the kids. Even after The Oregonian called foul on what was clearly unlawful campaigning, the district mailed a follow-up, reasserting the urgency but more clearly explaining the cost.

That’s when many homeowners realized it could be much more than the $400 per year being touted.

Another reason the defeat was miraculous is that the pro-bond campaign was masterminded by Portland’s premier political strategist, Mark Wiener. Wiener, who calls his firm “Winning Mark,” has been the brains behind the successful campaigns of most of the state’s high-profile Democrats, most recently conducting the campaign securing a third term for Gov. John Kitzhaber. Wiener has such an uncanny gauge on the pulse of Portland voters that he scuttled former Mayor Tom Potter’s attempt to reform our city government by simply sending out a mail piece bearing the image of President George W. Bush. Considering Portland voters have rarely, if ever, turned down requests “for the kids,” this one should have been a slam dunk for Wiener. But for some reason, this time “Winning Mark” lost. If the opponents had been as well-funded and well-managed as the supporters, the slim “no” margin would have been much wider.

The question is why was it defeated?

Most people simply shrug it off on the economy. They say the bond was too expensive and folks couldn’t afford it. But I’m not convinced that’s the whole reason.

Mom used to tell us we couldn’t have dessert until we’d eaten our vegetables. That simple truth is lost on our leaders. Our town is full of expensive dessert. We have the Eastbank Esplanade. We have streetcars. We have bike lanes and bioswales. We’re spending half a billion dollars to run light rail to Milwaukie and considering a streetcar to Lake Oswego. Meanwhile, the schools are crumbling, the roads are in disrepair and the Sellwood Bridge teeters on the edge of collapse. The things that should be top priority lay on the plate like the over-boiled lima beans Mom used to make us choke down.

When you ask the politicians how we can justify new rail lines and transit artwork and eco roofs while the roads are full of potholes and the schools are crumbling, you get a lecture on the “colors of money.” Transportation money is red. Water utility money is blue. Parks money is orange. As a citizen, you’re told no mixing is allowed. Of course, if you’re an elected, the rules don’t apply and you can use water utility money to bail out the Rose Festival, build solar powered latrines, purchase land and build an eco-spec house.

Mom also used to say “if there’s a will, there’s a way.” With all the dessert projects going on in this town, don’t tell me there’s no money to rebuild the schools and don’t lecture me about colored money. Last time I checked, all the money in my wallet was green.

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