Portland Community College asks voters to support a $450 million bond, its largest ask yet

Voters across the region will decide in November whether to approve a $450 million bond measure for Portland Community College, the state’s largest two-year institution which served more than 50,000 students last year.

Funds are earmarked to pay for technology updates, modernized workforce training spaces and improved building safety and accessibility. The bond would maintain the current tax rate of $.38 per $1,000 of assessed value. If voters don’t approve the bond, the tax levy rate is estimated to drop to about $.02 per $1,000, college spokesman James Hill said.

Opponents of the bond argue that the school’s declining enrollment undercuts the need for expanded facilities.

Portland Community College board member Laurie Cremona Wagner told the Oregonian’s editorial board that both students and employers would benefit if voters say yes. “The bond is really important to the community, because not only will we help provide the education for students to get skills they need to go into higher wage jobs, but we also provide the workforce for the economy and the companies needs in Oregon.”

The $450 bond measure is the largest the college has asked voters to fund, Rebecca Ocken, planning manager for the college said during the editorial board interview.

Big-ticket items include:

  • $85 million for the Rock Creek campus north of Beaverton, including remaking a 46-year-old building that houses career and technical education facilities. The college plans to reduce the building’s footprint and create separate facilities for automotive repair and building construction programs that don’t work well inside the existing building because of noise and fumes, Ocken said. The building also houses a welding facility that the college recently renovated. Hill says that the welding facility was built to stand alone and will continue to operate while the rest of the building is torn down around it.
  • $85 million for renovations on the Sylvania campus in Southwest Portland.
  • $20 million toward expanding career technical education in Washington county.
  • $60 million for deferred maintenance including roof replacement and repair.
  • $40 million for technology upgrades.
  • $10 million for safety and security updates.

The budget includes $1 million to pay for improvements to make campuses more accessible for students with disabilities. It will also fund expanded hybrid learning technology, which some advocates say has improved education access for students with disabilities.

“The more courses that we can offer in multi-modes, the more students we can serve and the easier it is for them to enroll in the classes that they need,” Cremona Wagner said.

The proposed bond is more than double the $185 million bond that voters approved for PCC in 2017. The current bond has a longer maturity period of 16 years, Ocken said, and funds will be dispersed through two or three installments. Ocken said she doesn’t anticipate the school will ask for another bond for at least a decade.

She called the ask a “refrained request” that doesn’t cover the billion dollars PCC needs to fully upgrade the college’s many campuses.

“It’s not what we need, it’s what we absolutely have to have to continue to provide the services that we do for students,” Ocken said.

Several business groups put forth voters pamphlet arguments in favor of the bond, as have the Oregon League of Conservation Voters and the Multnomah and Washington county Democratic parties. The Multnomah Libertarians and Taxpayers Association of Oregon submitted arguments in opposition, arguing, among other things, that Portland Community College has seen a decline in enrollment and has “no medium-term need for expanded facilities.”

The school has seen a 25% decline in enrollment since before the pandemic, following both state and national enrollment trends at community colleges, enrollment Dean Ryan Clark told The Oregonian/OregonLive.

Hill said the college needs to safeguard its existing assets. The school is working to reduce barriers to enrollment including students’ childcare needs and transportation challenges, Hill said. He said improvements in the bond are “aimed at addressing hands-on learning that we know students want and need.” Student enrollment in career technical areas has increased this year, Clark said, even as the school’s overall enrollment has gone down.

Portland Community College president Adrien Bennings will host several hybrid and in-person community meetings to answer questions about the bond this month. The next is on Thursday from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. in the great room of the college’s Willow Creek Center in Beaverton. Find a full calendar of future meetings here: bit.ly/3SSYU8q

This story was brought to you through a partnership between The Oregonian/OregonLive and Report for America. Learn how to support this crucial work.

Sami Edge covers higher education for The Oregonian. You can reach her at sedge@oregonian.com or (503) 260-3430.

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