PPS bond about $190M short to finish renovations

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PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The $790 million bond passed by voters in 2017 to renovate four schools and make district-wide safety upgrades is at least $190 million short of what’s needed to complete construction.

That means the total cost to renovate the Benson Tech and Madison High Schools and rebuild Lincoln High School and Kellogg Middle School — while also addressing at least $150 million in district-wide health and safety projects — is estimated to be $980 million. 

Benson Tech Foundation President Rob Johns told KOIN 6 News that voters and taxpayers deserve to know who knew what about cost estimates — and when they knew it.

“They were deeply misled. I would say the lack of oversight we now seem to find reveals a system that is materially flawed,” Johns said. “If you go to the voters with the largest bond in Oregon history and you can’t substantiate and make sense of the process to get you there, you have to say that system is incredibly flawed. And you have to say to yourself, ‘Were there lies? Was this voter fraud? And what election laws might apply to that?'”

KOIN 6 News obtained records from Portland Public Schools showing a construction management consultant warned school officials in January 2017 — months before the bond was passed — that the cost estimates were “too lean.”

CBRE Heery Managing Director Ken Fisher added, in his email to Portland Public Schools’ Office of School Modernization Senior Director Dan Jung and former Chief Operating Officer Jerry Vincent, that he recommended a “follow on discussion” with the outside cost estimator to go over the bond proposal estimates. Firm Rider Levett Bucknall (RLB) provided construction cost estimates to the district. 

That same day, Jung emailed Fisher and Vincent saying, “[W]e’re seeing a pattern of always taking the low end of the range and not the middle.” 

RLB estimated that the bond projects would cost at least $894.7 million and as much as $1.06 billion, according to The Portland Tribune.

Johns said voters were “deeply misled.”

“If you go to the voters with the largest bond in Oregon [schools’] history and you can’t substantiate it and make sense of the process to get you there, you have to say that the system is incredibly flawed,” Johns said. “And you have to say to yourself, ‘Were there lies? Was this voter fraud?'”

The 2017 Portland Public Schools bond was popular in part because of promises to do at least $150 million of health and safety work across the district including Martin Luther King Jr. School (Portland Public Schools via Portland Tribune)

PPS school board member Julia Brim-Edwards, who was not on the board at the time the bond proposal was put together, said there may never be clear answers as to how the district arrived at the calculations supporting the $790 million bond.

Despite that, she said she’ll be pushing equally for a review of the 2017 bond process and a path forward to deliver on the projects promised to voters.

Records obtained by KOIN 6 show that PPS paid a polling firm $45,000 to conduct research on a bond proposal. While the research firm Anzalone Liszt Grove found that a majority of voters would support both a $750 million and an $850 million bond, there would be slightly more support for the smaller bond. 

“[T]he $750 million price tag seems much more winnable and would be our initial recommendation for moving forward,” Anzalone Liszt Grove associate Pia Nargundkar wrote in January 2017. 

PPS Director of Strategic Communications and Outreach Harry Esteve provided a statement via email, writing, “PPS takes very seriously our obligation to voters and the Board of Education and district staff will be evaluating options to manage project costs and determine additional funding opportunities.”

The statement did not directly address a number of KOIN 6’s questions about the process that led to the bond that went on the May 2017 ballot. 

The “yes” vote on the bond added about $300 per year to the average household’s tax burden.

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