In the depths of a recession, with unemployment still topping 9 percent, Portland Public Schools has come to voters with two tax measures, including one for more than a half-billion dollars.
And WW, after interviewing dozens of people, poring over documents, and touring schools that look like they belong in Detroit (sorry, Detroit) rather than the City of Roses, has concluded they deserve your support.
Look at it this way. In 2008, Portland-area voters supported a $125 million tax hike so Packy the Elephant could have new stomping grounds at the Oregon Zoo. (We didn't support that measure, by the way.)
In 2010, voters narrowly approved a $72.4 million fire bond so the city could have brand-new radios, trucks and fireboats. (We opposed that measure as well.) And last year, Oregon voters also said yes to continuing to give about $82 million of lottery money each year to parks and wildlife habitat. (That one also failed to get our support.) Our point? If taxpayers are willing to dig deep for elephants, fireboats and salmon, shouldn't they also be willing to provide the setting for a proper education for our kids?
We think so.
One of the money measures on the ballot is a $548 million construction bond to rebuild nine schools and upgrade the district's 76 others. The other measure renews an existing levy—but also increases the amount it raises annually. That $59-million-a-year operating levy would protect the jobs of 600 teachers.
You won't find Donald Trump anywhere on the May 17 ballot. This election is all about education. In addition to the money measures, there are tough choices to be made about the people who will guide our schools.
Before delving into those races, let's start with some basic facts about the ballot measures. Remember: As your teachers told you, there's no such thing as a stupid question. OK, "Where is the president's birth certificate?" is an idiotic question. But these are good questions.
Let's say you don't have kids and you don't own a home. Why should you keep reading?
We'll spare you the usual song and dance—children, future, etc.—and remind you (A) someone paid for the school you attended and (B) you will pay for this, if it passes, no matter what. You may not owe property taxes, but your landlord certainly does, and he's more than happy to pass on that new cost to you in the form of higher rent.
First, the smaller of the two measures. The school district wants to renew its existing levy. What will the levy do?
The $59 million-a-year levy will raise property taxes for teachers' salaries. As you may know, state law limits the amount of property taxes that can be raised for schools by capping both the amount per thousand dollars of assessed property value that can be devoted to schools and by limiting the annual growth in assessed value.
But that is why God made loopholes.
Schools have been able to get around these limits by asking voters to pass "local option levies," which are for limited periods of time. PPS passed such a levy in 2006; it currently generates $40 million annually. And though it doesn't expire until 2012, PPS wants to renew it now. (Why? The Legislature in 2007 agreed to let local schools raise more via these tools. Second, advocates thought it made more strategic sense to combine a campaign to extend the levy with the construction-bond campaign, rather than wait.)
The new levy would protect a total of 600 teaching jobs—or 200 more than the current levy.
Fine. How much will it cost me?
The $59 million levy would raise property taxes for a typical homeowner (whose house is assessed at $143,000) in the district by about $100 per year, bringing the total cost of the levy to about $300 a year through 2015.
OK, now the construction bond—what is it for?
Districts are allowed to ask voters to raise their property taxes for bricks and mortar, too. And last year voters agreed to expand the definition of what counts as "bricks and mortar."
What will the $548 million be spent on? Full renovations for nine schools: Markham Elementary; Laurelhurst, Rigler, Faubion and Marysville K-8 schools; East Sylvan Middle School; and Roosevelt, Jefferson and Cleveland high schools. Plus architectural designs for a new Lincoln High.
The money would also pay for more modest upgrades at the remaining schools—new covered playgrounds, science labs, security systems and fire-suppression systems, plus improved playing fields, roofs and seismic upgrades.
Rebuilt schools would also be furnished with new desks, bookshelves and computers thanks to the new, broader rules about what constitutes "bricks and mortar."
What will it cost?
The $548 million construction bond will raise Portlanders' property taxes by $2 per $1,000 of assessed value. For a house whose assessed value is $143,000, that would translate to an extra $300 a year.
Who's donating money to this campaign?
The people who could make money from it, silly goose. More than $1 million has been raised from major construction companies, architecture and design firms, plus labor groups and others.
The opposition, a loose coalition of parents who call themselves Learn Now, Build Later (because they support the operating levy but not the construction bond), has barely raised enough to buy dinner at McDonald's.
What's the best reason to support the bond?
Portland Public Schools' facilities are, on average, 65 years old. Maintaining them is costly because much of their equipment is outdated. Expensive repairs take money from the classroom. And the list of needed fixes that would be addressed if the bond passes is long. The roof at Grant High School is in such disrepair, the damage is visible in images from Google Maps. One school is secured with a padlock because the doors are broken. Inefficient boilers from the 1950s send soot into custodians' faces and money out the leaky windows.
But what sense does it make to rebuild schools when we just closed 12?
PPS's enrollment has dropped dramatically since the 1950s, when many of the district's schools were built. In the past 10 years, PPS has closed a dozen schools to consolidate students so the district's 3,200-member teaching staff isn't stretched across buildings.
The remaining facilities have more students in them, but they remain in poor condition.
What's the best reason to vote no?
It's expensive and the timing stinks. And let's be clear: So long as people keep having children, this is not the last construction bond voters will face. The plan is to ask voters to renew the construction bond about every six years for the next three decades in order to fully modernize every school.
Besides that, there's the question of priorities. PPS wants to rebuild two schools whose populations have fallen so dramatically they were at risk for closure last year. Opponents say PPS is not "allocating our very scarce resources to protect and educate as many students as we can at a time of huge budgetary crisis."
So, how do we vote? Yes, on both.
Nobody ever sends us letters asking to give us money (except for that nice Nigerian man).
But we believe Portland Public Schools has done its due diligence and our schools are too crucial to the health of our city to defer this needed maintenance any longer.
Portland is a city that raises taxes for elephants, fireboats and salmon. We ought to be a city that teaches its children in schools that aren't raining ceiling tiles. To channel Tina Fey once more: We want to go to there.
Portland Public Schools Board of Education
The crew entrusted with making sure Portland Public Schools spends its money effectively is the all-volunteer board.
Julia Brim-Edwards, a School Board member from 2001 to 2005, calls the job "one of the most challenging public service positions" in Portland and "the best position to make a huge impact on your community and your community's future."
That future looks challenging. This year, the seven-member School Board must close a $40 million budget gap, or almost 10 percent of the district's general fund, because state revenue is not keeping up with expenses. Even if the levy passes, the gap would be $20 million.
Beyond budget matters, School Board members hire the superintendent and set policy. They don't write curriculum, but they do approve textbook purchases. They don't manage departments, but they do offer guidance when the district hires top administrators. School Board members also vote to close schools and redraw enrollment boundaries.
Sexy it ain't. Yet a total of 10 people are vying for the four available seats on the School Board.
What are we looking for? Someone smart and skeptical. Someone who can look past the demands of individuals to do what's best for the entire district. Board members are elected citywide and represent everyone in the school district, but they must live in the zone to which their seat is assigned. Here are our choices in the contested elections:
Zone 1, Southwest Portland and Sellwood: Ruth Adkins
Adkins first ran in May 2007 on a platform of not closing schools. She won. Three years later, in October 2010, Adkins voted to close Marshall High.
Hyprocrite? We prefer to think of her as more seasoned. A 47-year-old mother of three from Hillsdale, Adkins calls that about-face the "hardest decision I've made."
We may not agree Marshall was the right school to close, but we don't fault Adkins for realizing the district needs to consolidate resources.
Adkins is running again because she wants to oversee implementation of the two tax measures if voters approve them.
A Yale graduate, Adkins works for the Oregon Opportunity Network, an affordable housing group. Painfully quiet in 2007, Adkins speaks more forcefully now. We're glad.
Adkins is running against Larry Lawson, a network security manager and a photographer. He graduated from Grant in 1979 and has some budget experience, but he lacks any record of improving schools. He opposes the $548 million construction bond measure. "It's too much at one time," he says. But he supports the levy. He doesn't offer a compelling reason for unseating Adkins.
Glen Livingston, a self-described community activist, is also on the ballot. His inexperience makes Adkins a clear choice.
Zone 2, Inner Northeast Portland: Matt Morton
Three candidates seek to replace David Wynde, a banker who is stepping down, in the most competitive of May races. Two of the candidates—Matt Morton and Maggie Brister-Mashia—are impressive advocates with real passion for education.
This race stands out for a second reason—if either of the two strong candidates wins, the outcome will maintain diversity on the board. Morton is a member of the Squaxin Island Tribe in Washington, and Brister-Mashia is African-American. The School Board has long been a majority white institution, though the schools are increasingly diverse.
We give the slight edge to Morton, deputy director for the Portland-based National Indian Child Welfare Association. Morton offers budget experience that will be lacking on the board once Wynde's term expires.
John Sweeney, who makes his third run at the Portland School Board, is also on the ballot. Sweeney has run for almost every office available in Portland. We have yet to find one that fits his skills.
Zone 3, Northwest and Southwest Portland: Bobbie Regan
Eight years ago, Bobbie Regan came to our office seeking our endorsement, and the former marketing consultant and mother of two struck us as timid.
Either we were wrong or she has done a lot of growing up in two terms. In recent years, Regan has operated on a statewide stage with the Oregon School Boards Association.
Critics say Regan protects the interests of wealthier parents and students with programs like "school choice." That lets middle-class white parents who buy homes in gentrifying neighborhoods send their kids to schools in wealthier neighborhoods where the schools have more resources. We don't always agree with votes she casts, but Regan is a knowledgeable board member who deserves another shot.
Regan has two opponents. Christine Nelson is a pet portraitist who told WW she wants to bring "more accountability" to the board. She offers little more than platitudes.
Martha Perez has run for a number of elected positions. Her zeal exceeds her abilities.
Zone 7, Southeast Portland: Greg Belisle
Greg Belisle, a former music teacher who now works for Impact Northwest, a nonprofit formerly known as Portland Impact, is the best candidate in this race. He's also the only candidate to replace Dilafruz Williams, a principled board member who decided not to run for a third term.
Belisle told WW he quit teaching because it was difficult to reach all of the students in his classes in a structured setting. That calls to mind an old saw about teaching: Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach. Perhaps those who can't teach should serve on the school board?
That's too harsh. Belisle, who has two young children, strikes us as a fair guy. His experience working with Impact Northwest in Multnomah County SUN Schools means he knows schools and teachers can't provide every service children need without community partners. It also means he must abstain from any vote that involves his nonprofit, which has contracted with PPS in prior years. We're sure he will.
Portland Community College
While Portland State University gets all the attention for its bike-friendliness and the Mark O. Hatfield School of Government, PCC quietly churns out more students from three campuses and seven specialized centers.
In 2008, voters passed a $374 million construction bond for PCC to build new facilities. There are at least four years left to go on the projects.
PCC board members have similar authority to local school board members. They help President Preston Pulliam, now in his seventh year at PCC, establish budget priorities. But they also have the power to set tuition rates.
Zone 2, North Portland and a portion of Columbia County: Harold Williams
This zone stretches from North Portland to Columbia County.
Harold Williams has served in this position for 20 years. And while we might otherwise be inclined to give someone else the nod in light of William's long tenure, we're sticking with him because of the broad perspective he brings to his duties—and the absence of a credible alternative.
Opponent Michael "Micro" Durrow doesn't offer much more than a bitter critique of the status quo. "We don't need newer and shinier toys," he said at one point.
William "Al" Petersen, who owns an architecture firm in St. Helens, is angry that PCC offers too few classes in Columbia County. He may be right, but that's not a sufficient reason to offer our endorsement.
Kitty Harmon, a tea partyer, ran as a Republican against state Rep. Tina Kotek (D-Portland) last year. We called her "pleasant enough" then. We'll go for Williams, who says this next term would be his last.
Zone 7, Washington County: Deanna Palm
Deanna Palm was appointed to the board in 2009, 25 years after getting her associate's degree in information systems from PCC. She has a stellar reputation in Washington County as the president of Hillsboro's Chamber of Commerce and says she would focus most on making sure PCC spends its construction dollars wisely.
Palm is running against Chuck Riley, a former three-term member of the Oregon House who has better name recognition in the zone that stretches west from Beaverton. In Salem, Riley was mediocre. He says he wants to be on PCC's board to advocate for increased community college funding. That sounds like a lobbying job and Riley sounds like a legislator looking for a lifeline. We'll pass.
Jerry Tobin, a physics and math instructor in the community college system for decades, has a few ideas for promoting efficiencies in the system. He doesn't like PCC's annual celebration of Semana de la Raza. We do. We'll take Palm.
Multnomah Education Service District
Like the 19 other education service districts in Oregon, the MESD is so obscure it's typically only in the news for something bizarre. Former MESD board member Ron Chinn, for example, made a stir in 2007 when he denigrated special education students as "SLABs," or "slow, low and belows." In recent months, state Sen. Mark Hass (D-Raleigh Hills) has attacked ESDs as inefficient.
So what the heck is an ESD?
An ESD acts like a co-op that delivers regional educational services. Among other things, it provides speech pathologists, special education teachers and school nurses to school districts. And, oh yeah, the ESD offers local kids Outdoor School.
Position 5, Zone 1 (North and Northeast Portland): Gary Hollands
Neither Gary Hollands nor his opponent, Dick Osborne, had ever attended an MESD board meeting when they came to our office seeking an endorsement. Neither one has significant experience managing budgets
anywhere near MESD's $70 million.
Because we have to choose one of these underwhelmers, we give the nod to Hollands, a small-business owner who hauls junk. His wife is employed by MESD. That gives us pause, but we don't think it's a deal breaker. At least he'd read transcripts from meetings to, at a minimum, get an idea what is involved.
Osborne worked for more than 40 years in the food-service industry. He ran as a Republican against Rep. Jackie Dingfelder (D-Portland) in 2006 when he warned us of a "homosexual agenda" in schools. We ignored that then. We'll ignore it now.
Position 6, At Large: Doug Montgomery
Doug Montgomery seeks to replace Mike Delman, a policy consultant who was elected two years ago to fill a vacancy. Delman more recently was the subject of bitter criticism from one board member.
In the words of an MESD resolution that was never forwarded, "While the April 20, 2010, Regular Board meeting was in session, Director Delman chose to listen through earphones to radio commentary on a basketball game and, upon both private and public admonition from the Chair, continued while the meeting proceeded."
Talk about weird. We'll go with Montgomery, a smart and highly qualified candidate who taught public policy at Portland State University and once served as a board member for the Northwest Regional ESD.
Position 7, Zone 3 (Southwest and inner Southeast): Kevin Spellman
This is easy. Kay Bridges, a nice woman who owns a flower delivery service, has no grasp of the issues facing
MESD and seems incapable of answering questions succinctly.
We see no reason to replace Kevin Spellman, a retired construction firm operator who was appointed to the board to fill a vacancy in 2006. Spellman has a strong understanding of budgetary issues and policy.
CORRECTION: The original version of this story misidentified the location for one Multnomah Education Service District zone. Position 5, Zone 1 is North and Northeast Portland.