A key promise Mayor Sam Adams made in his 2010 State of the City address—to fund a scholarship program for community college students—remains little more than a concept one year later.
Yet city officials say the project is on track to award grants of $500 to $1,500 to 200 disadvantaged students this spring so they can go to school this fall.
"Getting an associate degree, and landing a living-wage job," Adams told a packed City Club of Portland audience Feb. 5, 2010, "just became a lot easier."
When he announced the new program last year, the mayor said the scholarships would be tied to internships with the City of Portland's water and sewer departments. The link to city internships provided a justification for allocating $332,000 from those two bureaus' budgets to pay for the scholarships. Another $168,000 was to come from the city's general fund, bringing the total city contribution to $500,000 for 2011.
Adams also said last year that the scholarships would allow students to attend either Portland or Mount Hood community colleges, a move that gave the mayor credibility in his quest to promote city programs in historically neglected East Portland. Although Mount Hood Community College's main campus is in Gresham, it draws students from Portland's east side.
With Adams scheduled to deliver his 2011 State of the City speech Feb. 18, the mayor's ambitious educational program now faces a number of obstacles beyond questions from members of the Portland Utility Review Board whether nonessential services like student tuition are an appropriate use of sewer and water ratepayers' money (see "The Scholarship Spigot," WW, Feb. 24, 2010). An independent review from City Auditor LaVonne Griffin-Valade on that topic is expected next month.
One snag is that neither the Water Bureau nor the Bureau of Environmental Services has established where to place future interns despite city officials' plans to open the program to applicants in the coming weeks.
"It is still a new idea," says Water Bureau director David Shaff. "I don't think we have a great sense of what exactly the plan is."
Kali Ladd, an education adviser to the mayor, defends the timeline in part because internships wouldn't start immediately. Though she was unsure of the exact start, Ladd said it wouldn't be until after chosen students completed at least one term of community college classes. That may not be until summer 2012.
"We don't expect them to do the internships in September," Ladd says.
But that means the city will commit financially to students before finalizing a crucial component of the aid plan. Tracy Marks, a two-term former member of the Utility Review Board, says that's backwards.
"If I were an active member [of PURB], I would ask them to help me understand why funding at ratepayers' expense would be committed without clear criteria of what these individuals would be doing," says Marks, who left the PURB in June.
There's a second problem. The mayor's initiative calls for the community colleges to pay for part of the program, and Mount Hood Community College expects to have to cut $4 million to $5 million from its upcoming budget.
"We would have great difficulty generating a match for that scholarship," says Mount Hood President John "Ski" Sygielski, who announced last week he's leaving to take the job at Harrisburg Area Community College in Pennsylvania in July.
For the time being that means Mount Hood Community College will not participate in the program.
Adams spokesman Roy Kaufmann said Tuesday the mayor was unavailable for comment.
But Reese Lord, a second education adviser to the mayor, is comfortable moving forward with the scholarship program without first establishing what the new internships (funded with ratepayer money) might be.
"We are fully aware," Lord says, "of the restrictions on the money."