PORTLAND'S PUBLIC SCHOOLS are an embarrassment: Only 53 percent of students graduate on time, and the average age of our buildings is 65 years. We're outpaced by suburbs like Lake Oswego and Beaverton, which have lower dropout rates and better facilities.

So what to do? How about ask for some help?

On the May 17 ballot, Portland Public Schools (PPS) is asking you to sign off on the most expensive package of tax hikes in Oregon history. District officials would like to start rehabbing dilapidated, seismically unsafe campuses. They also need a cash lifeline to keep from laying off teachers.

And, yes, their timing is terrible. The city has barely begun to claw its way out of a recession. If a majority votes yes, then the average homeowner's annual property tax will increase by $400. Ouch.

But we say vote yes anyway. Not letting the 'burbs put us to shame means Portland needs to pony up, even when it hurts. The influx of money is right for students and it's right for the city. It's even right for all you childless renters who might have to pay your landlords more each month.

A solid commitment to public education will send a strong message to employers who might want to move to Portland (you like having a job, don't you?) and to community-minded family types who might be (reluctantly) considering moving away.

The increase is actually two measures: a $548 million bond to rebuild nine schools and refurbish the rest of the 85, and a five-year, $57 million annual levy that will help run the district's schools.

Because of the economy, a group of schools advocates, calling themselves Learn Now, Build Later, are urging voters to say no to the bond, but yes to the operating levy. They say we should wait two more years to plan another bond and, in the meantime, the district should close more schools so we can spend that bond money more efficiently. Those are reasonable cautions at a time when taxpayers are already counting their pennies.

If we pass the bond and rebuild schools we can't afford, we could wind up with what Learn Now, Build Later spokesman Eric Fruits calls the "Wapato problem," referring to an expensive new jail still mothballed because Multnomah County can't afford to run it. Worst-case scenario, they say, is that we allocate $548 million and wind up with beautiful schools we might not need, lacking both teachers and basic classes.

But let's look at what's not up for debate: Our schools are falling apart. (We're talking asbestos-coated pipes, oil furnaces that are time bombs for fire, and kids taking turns plugging in computers because of shoddy wiring.) They'll be even worse in two years. And with the state mired in a budget apocalypse, it's our responsibility to fix them. Now. Before a major disaster or tragedy makes us wish we'd voted yes.

The bond certainly isn't perfect. Learn Now, Build Later notes that the bond spends half its money on only six percent of students and doesn't include seismic upgrades for 13 schools that are rated "very likely" to collapse.

But closing more schools and praying for a more perfect plan? PPS has tightened things up, closing 12 schools in 10 years. It's a wrenching process, and the community has said enough is enough.

We also doubt PPS can put together a less controversial ask in two years, or ever. What this bond focuses on—overhauling the city's worst schools and making fixes at every school citywide—is a necessary investment and not one that should wait. Vote yes.

The Mercury did not endorse candidates for Portland School Board, whose names also appear on the ballot. But to read detailed questionnaires from school board candidates, check out the League of Women Voters of Portland's voter's guide over at lwvpdx.org.