April 8, 2008
Don't order the wrecking ball just yet: Nathan Clifford Elementary School, on Falmouth Street. (photo/Chris Busby)
Council nixes public vote on state-backed bonds for new school
By Chris Busby
In a move that shocked and appalled backers of building a new elementary school on Ocean Avenue, the Portland City Council voted late last night not to ask voters to weigh in on whether to issue nearly $20 million in state-backed bonds for the project. The vote is all but certain to kill plans to construct a new school on the site of the former Baxter Elementary School in the city's Back Cove neighborhood.
The measure needed super-majority support of at least seven of the nine councilors. Mayor Ed Suslovic was joined by peninsula district Councilors Kevin Donoghue and Dave Marshall in opposing the order to put the bond question before voters this June. Voter approval is necessary to borrow the money.
Councilors Nick Mavodones, Jill Duson, Jim Cohen, John Anton, Cheryl Leeman and Dan Skolnik all supported sending the bond question out for a vote, as did the majority of the Portland School Committee. In March, the Maine Board of Education voted unanimously to approve the concept design for the new school, which would have served nearly 450 children.
The state had offered to reimburse the city for nearly all of the bonded construction funds. Councilor Mavodones said it would be "criminal" to turn that offer down. "We would be the laughing stock of Maine" if the city passed up the state money, he said.
Opponents said that in the absence of a comprehensive plan for elementary school consolidation, voters would not be able to make an informed decision this summer. The school board has tried, and failed, for several years to come up with such a plan.
Suslovic and Donoghue also said there are other costs associated with the project that have not been identified – including improvements to roads and sidewalks near the proposed school site and increased transportation costs. Without knowing what these and other long-term costs may be, voters cannot make an informed judgment, they said.
Marshall noted that the Libbytown neighborhood surrounding Nathan Clifford Elementary School, which was slated to close under this plan, recently qualified for federal anti-poverty funds. The loss of the neighborhood's school would further stress this area of town, he argued.
Clifford's closure amounts to "disinvesting in a declining neighborhood," agreed Donoghue. "It's red-lining in 2008, and I'm not going to be part of it."
School board chairman John Coyne was incensed by the vote. "I'm disappointed in Mayor Suslovic, Councilor Donoghue and Councilor Marshall for not allowing the city voters to have a voice in what happens with their schools," he said. "They have silenced the voters who elected them."
Some councilors who supported sending the bond question out for a vote said they still didn't like the Ocean Avenue plan. Councilor Skolnik, whose district includes Libbytown, paraphrased a Bob Dylan lyric in his opening remarks to express his disgust: "Tell me great hero, but please make it brief, is there a hole for me to get sick in?"
Skolnik said he favored more exploration of the possibility a new school could be built at Dougherty Field. The Ocean Avenue plan would create a school that's "too big in the short term and too small in the long term," he said.
The normally mild-mannered Mavodones became visibly angry when it became clear the measure was going to fail. "I'm pretty shocked, particularly at our at-large member, who's the mayor," he said. He implied that Suslovic, who lives near Clifford school, was putting the interests of his neighborhood over those of the city as a whole.
"I hope all the people who live in this city take note of this," Mavodones said, adding that he'd heard talk of a campaign to recall city officials if the matter was not put before voters. After the meeting, Mavodones said he had already gotten e-mails from incensed citizens watching the proceedings on TV. "In these bad budget times, to give away $20 million is disgraceful," he added outside Council Chambers.
Donoghue cited the city's budget woes as a reason for his vote. "I voted down a plan to expand the capacity of a school system we can't afford," he said after the meeting.
Councilor Leeman admonished Mavodones and others for their tone during the meeting, and tried to pass an amendment asking state officials to hold the $20 million they'd pledged for a new elementary school in Portland until city officials came up with a comprehensive plan. That amendment failed 7-2, with Leeman and Suslovic in the minority.
Interim Superintendent Jeanne Whynot-Vickers said state education officials had told her it was "very unlikely" the state would agree to give city officials more time to settle this matter. State officials have already granted Portland one extension, she said.
Portland school officials will now have to go back to the drawing board and figure out how to proceed.
It's possible last night's vote saved Clifford school from the wrecking ball. The century-old structure had been considered too impractical to renovate, but Councilor Marshall said state lawmakers recently passed a bill granting historic schools a special waiver from guidelines that would ordinarily preclude additional state investment.
Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.