What once seemed like a long shot for Portland public schools is about to come to fruition as lawmakers move toward end-of-term approval funding package which includes $120 million in general fund dollars to build a new Harriet Tubman Middle School.
The spending, which was a top priority for Governor Kate Brown, is tucked away in a 34-page list of spending and budget reconciliation items that lawmakers should review in full after clearing the Joint Ways and Means Committee on February 28. .
“This was an opportunity for the state to do the right thing — and we’re still waiting for final votes — but this is a case of Governor Brown and legislative leaders delivering on their promises,” Julia Brim said. Edwards, a member of the Portland Public Schools Board.
Not so long ago, Tubman’s outlook looked bleak.
The school, located at 2231 North Flint Ave., is just north of I-5 in the Rose Quarter. It opened in 1952 as Eliot Elementary, long before I-5 divided the adjacent neighborhood. Portland Public Schools renamed the school after Harriet Tubman, the abolitionist and Underground Railroad activist in 1982. The school closed in 2012, not due to environmental concerns about emissions from the nearby highway, but due to declining enrollment and school consolidation.
Then came a scandal over lead in Portland public school drinking fountains, which raised awareness of environmental risks. When PPS moved to reopen Tubman as a college as part of the cancellation of a move to K-8 schools, the district spent heavily — in the range of $15 million — to a sophisticated HVAC system that would filter out traffic pollutants on I-5.
But in 2017, as PPS prepared to reopen a renovated Tubman, lawmakers passed a $5 billion transportation funding bill that included $450 million to expand and streamline a lingering bottleneck on the I-5 at the Rose Quarter.
PPS officials joined environmentalists, Albina neighborhood activists and local officials in raising concerns about an increase in emissions due to the expansion.
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But PPS, which had just spent a lot on making the school’s indoor air safe, didn’t have the money to move the school. ODOT, which has now seen the cost of the Rose Quarter project nearly triple to around $1.3 billion, didn’t have the money either.
PPS lobbied for Brown and his agency to take action. Far higher-than-expected state revenues and generous federal funding allowed lawmakers in this February session to fund projects they might not otherwise have approved. It looks like Tubman will be one of them.
“From the start, we had to pull out our elbows and demand a seat at the table regarding the planned Rose Quarter expansion project. We had to publicly speak out against ODOT and the negative impact of the highway and the expansion on the Harriet Tubman school community and our students,” says Brim Edwards. “It was a huge plan, unprecedented in fact, for us to demand that the state pay to rebuild the school in a safer location. “
If the bill passes, PPS and the Tubman community will begin the process of finding a new school site. There will also be political fallout: Tubman’s funding would silence the PPS as a strong and influential voice in the Rose Ward debate.
Brown and ODOT have already appeased another powerful critic, agreeing to requests from the Albina Vision Trust that the project include major freeway bottlenecks as a way to replenish the Albina neighborhood. This decision also pleased some elected critics of the Rose Quarter project, which leaves environmentalists, led by the group No More Freeways, increasingly isolated.