IMAGE: Jonathan Hill
Among the many unanswered questions still surrounding Portland Public Schools’ high-school redesign is one that not even Superintendent Carole Smith can answer.
Specifically, what’s up with Marshall High School?
On April 26, Smith slated Marshall’s three “small schools” (with a total enrollment of 747) for closure in 2011, a proposal that devastated some in Marshall’s Southeast Portland community—arguably the least powerful constituency of any of Portland’s 10 high schools.
In place of Marshall’s three small schools, Smith proposed one new “focus school,” with an unspecified theme, for just 400 students.
Besides its smaller size, the focus school would differ in a second way from Marshall’s current structure—it would be open to students applying from across the district. Neighborhood students wouldn’t be forced to attend the focus school. Depending on where they lived, Marshall students would be reassigned to Madison, Franklin or (under the June 2 version of the redesign) Cleveland high schools.
The superintendent’s third idea for reforming Marshall is even less developed than the first two: PPS, which has about 4,000 fewer high-school students than it did 30 years ago, even though it operates the same number of campuses, would share the Marshall campus in Lents with the David Douglas School District. David Douglas has 2,700 students at its overcrowded high school in East Portland, making it one of Oregon’s largest high schools. And David Douglas has no money to build a second campus; a construction bond failed decisively in 2006.
But Smith’s proposal to share the Marshall campus already appears dead on arrival, meaning the cost of the redesign plan will probably grow. Six weeks after unveiling her initial plan (for more on the redesign, see Murmurs, page 6), no one in PPS has been able to articulate a specific proposal for sharing Marshall.
And no one in the David Douglas School District can identify a demonstrable need for a small satellite campus four miles west of the current high school campus.
“It’s something Portland’s talking about,” says David Douglas board member Frieda Christopher. “At this moment we’re just waiting to see what Portland’s thinking.”
Meanwhile, rather than risk the loss of their neighborhood high school to some hybridized venture with David Douglas, Marshall residents are organizing an unprecedented campaign to keep their neighborhood school from becoming a focus school, another term for magnet school.
“A focus school at Marshall is not a school for the neighborhood—it’s a school for the rest of Portland that already has opportunity and options,” Lents activist Cora Potter wrote in an email to the Portland School Board and City Council. “A focus school is not an equitable, accessible school with strong social ties to the neighborhood.”
On June 2, Smith announced new tweaks to her redesign plan. But she offered no new specific information about how PPS would share Marshall with David Douglas.
One day later, at a David Douglas board meeting, retiring Superintendent Barbara Rommel acknowledged the same dearth of details about the proposal to share.
“We said we’re interested in talking,’” Rommel told the board. “But that is as far as the whole thing has gone.”
At first glance, the benefits to PPS of sharing Marshall are clear. Serving more students would bring more state money to the campus and score political points for helping relieve David Douglas’ overcrowding problem.
But PPS, which faces an immediate $19 million budget shortfall, isn’t the only district under financial strain. David Douglas, which has about one-fifth the enrollment of PPS, also confronts a $4.4 million budget gap next year and is eating into its budget reserves.
Getting money from David Douglas, which would be forced to spread its already thin resources to a second campus, appears unlikely. “There isn’t a dime to spare,” says Annette Mattson of the David Douglas School Board.
Marshall neighbors oppose sharing anyway. Two weeks ago, the Lents Neighborhood Association endorsed a measure to possibly merge Marshall with the David Douglas School District through a boundary change. If that happened, David Douglas would have to buy or lease the Marshall building and others in the cluster. PPS administrators oppose a merger because it would cost the district millions of state dollars.
But neighborhood activists don’t need PPS’s support to try to force a merger. Under state law, the Multnomah Education Service District—which pools resources for all eight school districts in the Portland area—acts as the boundary board, and activists can petition MESD directly.
“It’s possible,” says MESD attorney Jeni Woods.
It’s not exactly easy, however. Activists must first collect 500 signatures from residents in both PPS and David Douglas. If they succeed, the boards in both districts can let the merger proceed or try to stop it by gathering 500 opposition signatures. If that happens, the question then goes to a popular vote.
MESD last oversaw such a process in 1987. But supporters of a comprehensive high school on the Marshall campus are undeterred. “The community is really clear in that we want a comprehensive high school in our neighborhood,” says school activist Carrie Adams.