| SOPHOMORE SLUMP: In his second year as mayor, Sam Adams has stayed mum on the biggest issue facing Portland and its schools. |
IMAGE: Matt Grigsby
In his 2008 campaign for mayor, Sam Adams told reporters he would be local public schools’ “chief accountability officer” and “fundraiser in chief.”
Two years later, Portland Public Schools is grappling with its controversial high-school redesign. The upcoming decision carries huge implications for student achievement and the school district’s future financial health, as well as neighborhood livability and Portland’s ability to attract and retain employers.
Yet Adams would get an “incomplete” so far on the redesign. He has remained mostly quiet on this topic.
It’s not as though he has completely forgotten his pledges to be an education mayor. Despite the fact City Hall lacks any fiscal authority over the school district and the mayor faces his own budget shortfall, Adams’ budget requests for 2010-2011 include $100,000 for the Portland Schools Foundation to conduct dropout prevention research and another $200,000 for Portland Public Schools to upgrade the athletic field at Roosevelt High School. He also wants to add a fourth staffer in his office devoted to education, even though city financial planners say existing staff can cover the workload.
Additionally, at his State of the City address in February, Adams announced the creation of a new college scholarship program for Portland students to attend Portland Community College and Mount Hood Community College.
But parents concerned about PPS’s high-school redesign want the mayor to say something before it’s too late about the district’s plan to “repurpose” schools and shift boundaries for its 11,000 high-school students in 2011.
“I think the mayor really needs to sit back and evaluate what any school closure would do to a community,” says Franklin High parent Jeff Hammond. “I would hope that the mayor would come out in support of keeping strong neighborhoods…regardless of what the plan is.”
“Listening mode” is how Roosevelt mom Leah Siebert described Adams’ approach when he met with the new High Schools Coalition about the redesign last weekend.
Given parents’ high level of anxiety, Adams’ lack of public engagement runs counter to his campaign promises.
In recent months, the mayor has met mostly behind the scenes with concerned parents and school district staff about the impending school closures. Except for an occasional tweet reiterating PPS’s talking points, Adams hasn’t opined on the topic.
Asked about the substance of his conversations with the school district, Adams called them “private.” He said he’s withholding comment until the district publicly presents its plans April 26. “I want to give them a chance to make their pitch,” Adams says.
Adams’ silence on the redesign, which PPS officials say will increase graduation rates and improve student achievement, is striking given his campaign vow to work toward cutting the district’s dropout rate in half. Although dropout rates are measured annually, Adams says Portlanders won’t be able to assess whether he’s fulfilled his campaign promise until 2013, after the next election cycle for mayor. “It’s too early to tell,” he says.
Education is always a tricky issue for Portland mayors. Polling consistently puts it at or near the top of voters’ concerns, yet the city charter gives mayors no explicit role in overseeing schools.
When school district budgets shrank, then-Mayor Vera Katz helped to pass a countywide income tax in 2003. In 2006, then-Mayor Tom Potter gave Portland schools $10 million.
Adams’ most visible education initiative has been less visible. The community college scholarship program he proposes will draw funding from the city’s utility license fee on already growing sewer and water rates.
Adams defends the scheme by pitching the program as “skills training for the retirements that are upcoming” in the Portland Water Bureau and the Bureau of Environmental Services.
A second education initiative hits this week when the mayor hosts an “education summit” on April 10 and 12. He hopes the gathering will be a more serious alternative to the Portland Schools Foundation’s lighthearted annual roast. “I think it’s embarrassing that the highest-profile education activity [in Portland] is a roast,” he says.
For two roasts running, of course, Adams’ lies about Beau Breedlove were a popular source of jokes. But the foundation’s event raised $300,000 for public school. Adams’ education summit—which will feature a keynote address from Greg Darnieder, adviser to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan on the Secretary’s Initiative on College Access—has registered 157 people as of Tuesday.
Adams had invited Darnieder’s boss, but Duncan had a scheduling conflict, according to the mayor’s office.
FACT: Adams has pledged money from the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability to promote the high-school redesign in a mailing to all residents within Portland Public Schools’ boundaries once it’s unveiled.