This election is about two things: preserving the status quo and blowing it up.

Voters are being asked to bail out our most fundamental public service, education, and to select people who can run our schools and community colleges better.

The big question on the ballot is a countywide measure that boils down to a simple question: "Do local schools need to be adequately funded?" (Measure 26-48 will also pay for other services, but K-12 schools are the reason for its existence.) Despite the obvious answer, voters are understandably troubled. How can the government ask for such a big bite out of our piggy banks, they wonder, and not reduce class size or provide any new programs?

That's a great question. The answer, unfortunately, is that M26-48 is preventative medicine. Rather than supplements that will bolster a thriving institution, it's a stopgap attempt to keep the patient alive.

If the proposed income-tax hike is simply damage control, the Portland School Board election is all about change.

Frankly, the roster of 22 candidates for the four vacant school-board seats is pretty minor-league. With this rare opportunity to reshape the seven-member nonpartisan board, we hoped for more talent. In fact, when the process began, there were hopes that the field of candidates would include two former governors (Barbara Roberts and Neil Goldschmidt) and a former president of Reed College (Paul Bragdon).

Instead, we're left with a boys' club (only two women joined the fray) that includes perennial wannabes who will run for anything; way too many "advocates," "activists" and "consultants"; and one guy best known for giving his ex-girlfriend herpes (see "Candidate tip No. 2," page 25).

That doesn't mean the politicking hasn't been furious. Several groups selected their own unofficial slates of candidates (who must live in specific geographic areas but run districtwide). There's the "Lars" slate, touted by a certain KXL-910 AM radio host. The teachers' union is pushing a slate, as are the advocacy group Stand for Children and a group of establishment types headed by former board member Stephen Kafoury.

We've picked our own quartet, focusing not on those who are nice and play well with Portland's touchy-feely process lovers but on those who show signs of bringing the type of leadership and toughness the board needs.

Finally, there are two other education boards, Portland Community College and Multnomah Education Service District, which don't get a lot of attention but do important work.

While it's tempting to look at the May 20 election as just another cry for help from undermanned, underfunded bureaucracies, the continued disinvestment from Portland's educational system is the biggest threat the city faces. It could affect everything from property values and crime rates to whether parents and employers will abandon Portland.

Over the years, we've seen more exciting multiple-choice exams, but few that will test Portland as much as this one.

Measure 26-48 --YES

The problem: Multnomah County's eight public school districts are hurting. Portland Public Schools, for example, says 650 teachers face the ax next year if this measure fails. In addition, there's not enough cash to keep the local jails running or fund social services.

The solution: A three-year hike on the income tax of county residents to raise about $130 million a year.

The risk: This measure won't solve the underlying

The cost: People who earn the county's median taxable income of $30,000 will get dinged for $245 annually.

If that sick feeling in your stomach feels familiar, there's good reason. We're making a return trip to the emergency room, scrambling to save the critically ill patient of this state's government programs, K-12 education.

And once again the treatment of choice is a box of Band-Aids.

This countywide measure will also provide some temporary relief for local social services and public safety (emergency mental-health care for 3,000 uninsured adults and 386 medium-security jail beds), but the bulk of the cash--nearly $90 million--goes to schools. Portland Public Schools, the largest district, will get about $51 million.

Proponents of the measure are asking county residents for help because the sputtering economy has sapped the income-tax receipts on which public services in Oregon are so dependent.

This measure is a historic one, because it seeks a regional--rather than statewide--fix for the underfunded public schools in the Portland area. We're completely comfortable with this development.

Since Measure 5 passed in 1990 and transferred K-12 funding responsibility from local districts to the Legislature 12 years ago, the metro area has provided enormous subsidies to the rest of the state. Because Portland-area lawmakers have been unable to alter the state's school-funding formula, local districts must either suffer big cuts or supplement the rations Salem sends back.

Based on Salem's projected tax receipts, the Portland school district's budget for 2003-2004 is $337 million. That's only 2 percent ($7 million) more than the district spent in 1993. To provide the current level of services next year, Superintendent Jim Scherzinger says he needs $396 million. If M26-48 passes, he'll almost be there.

That's right--we're raising millions just to preserve the status quo. It's like dropping a couple hundred bucks at New Seasons only to find there's nothing in the fridge but the same frozen hot dogs that were there before you went to the store.

Why have district costs gone up so quickly? Part of it is salaries, but a larger component is the exploding cost of PERS, the rising costs of providing teachers health insurance and the increase in special-ed costs.

Opponents of the tax hike, such as charter-school activist Rob Kremer, say that voting "no" on this ballot measure will force the district to reopen teacher contracts and slash those expenses that we can control.

We agree with Kremer about the need to get the costs under control, but we disagree with his method. Fact is, PERS reform is here. Last week, the Legislature passed a couple of bills that will seriously lessen the PERS burden. The savings are a few years off, since the legislation will be challenged in court by public-employee unions, but Kremer's solution is akin to lecturing somebody in the middle of a heart attack about the perils of a high-cholesterol diet.

In addition, the Portland school district has made a commitment to containing health-care costs, and, while we have been skeptical in the past of the board's seriousness, we have become believers. Many of the likely winners of the current school-board election are committed to this issue, and a number of local officials, notably City Commissioner Randy Leonard and County Chair Diane Linn, have all but staked their careers on it.

In fact, contrary to popular belief, Portland school officials are already curbing costs. The district has closed schools, fired hundreds of union custodians and reined in health-care costs for non-union employees. The district is even willing to consider selling its administration building.

In short, real changes have already been made, and more are on the way. Until then, M26-48 provides a necessary bandage to the hemorrhaging budget.

Given this state's economy, it's difficult to ask taxpayers to dig deeper into their pockets. This newspaper has often rejected local government's calls for more money (as we did last November). This time, however, the need is clear.

If the measure fails, Portland's student-teacher ratio will rise from 30-to-1 to 46-to-1. Programs such as athletics and Outdoor School will join music and art on the discard pile, no doubt prompting more parents to consider other options.

Unlike those of nearly any other large American city, Portland's public schools have held onto middle-class families. But that grip is loosening and is threatened as perhaps never before. Families who are already considering other options will be watching this election closely, as will Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau and corporate executives thinking about investing here.

A no vote on Measure 26-48 is likely to inflict the Portland school district with a wound that could take our schools, and city, decades to overcome. That's a prospect that every voter--whether they have kids in school or not--should work hard to avoid.

ZONE 1: Southwest

John Liljegren

What wows us: The chance to inject a shot of political diversity and real-world experience into a board lacking in both.

What worries us: Liljegren's anemic campaign calls into question his political skills.

Here's what one school board member said about John Liljegren: "He's smart, principled, hard-working--and stands for just about everything I disagree with."

We share some of those concerns but still think this penny-pinching ex-real-estate lawyer and property manager would bring a welcome perspective to a politically homogeneous board (token Republican Julia Brim-Edwards is about as conservative as Hillary Clinton) short on people who have earned a private-sector paycheck.

Liljegren, 52, currently earns his living by helping start charter schools, which is the issue that led him to jump into the race to replace Karla Wenzel. He's a bit of a local-control obsessive and would like to overhaul the district to make each school, in effect, a charter school. He doesn't have the votes to do that (which is a good thing), but we think he could be a productive member of the board.

The father of a current Wilson High student, Liljegren has put in lot of time studying the district's finances, both as a member of the Citizens Budget Review Committee and as a co-founder of the Portland Arts and Sciences Academy. (The charter school won approval after a long wrangle with district officials but has not opened because it cannot find a site.)

District officials who have worked with Liljegren on contentious negotiations over charter schools say he is professional, responsive and knowledgeable.

His background in property management would bring a critical eye to the district's use of facilities. He also does a better job of explaining the structural financial problems that plague the district than anyone in the field. Liljegren says he would push to decentralize district functions, a key component of the district's much ballyhooed and largely ignored strategic plan.

Chief rivals: The establishment pick in this race is Douglas Morgan, a management professor at Portland State University. Morgan is an affable, public-spirited sort unlikely to make waves or raise his voice. He won admirers in City Hall for his work on the Public Utilities Review Board (now disbanded) and on a city-county consolidation task force.

Morgan wouldn't do any harm as a board member, but it's unclear what good he might do. He's a management expert whose experience comes from books. After 30 years in academia, Morgan strikes us as longer on platitudes than passion. Teacher Jim Hanna rates a mention as well. He is a 31-year district veteran who made news after successfully appealing his 1998 firing. A veritable Vesuvius of ideas, Hanna lacks the organizational and people skills to capitalize on his energy.

Also-rans: Jim Davis, Terry Olson, Eamon Molloy and Ron Stull.

ZONE 2: Inner Northeast, Southeast

Martin Gonzales

What wows us: His experience as a community organizer and deep ties to the Latino community.

What worries us: His lack of policy-making experience.

We're taking a risk here in the race to replace Sue Hagmeier. Martin Gonzales is a savvy community organizer and small businessman who has been a strong representative for Portland's fast-growing Latino community. Although soft-spoken and less visible than the advocates who lead the Education Crisis Team, Gonzales has the experience and connections to be an effective ally of minority students.

As a top local official with the American Friends Service Committee, Gonzales has been a champion for social justice, speaking out at anti-war rallies and criticizing the Portland Police Bureau for the 2002 hospital shooting of Jose Mejia Poot, an emotionally disturbed Mexican national. In fact, his almost maniacal demands for the firing of Police Chief Mark Kroeker after he awarded medals to the officers who shot Poot last year placed Portland's two top Latino leaders, County Commissioners Serena Cruz and Maria Rojo de Steffey, in awkward positions. (Both, however, are backing his school-board bid.)

Gonzales, who ran for the state Legislature in 1998 and owns La Bella Nonna restaurant in Southeast Portland, can speak with firsthand experience about the achievement gap and inequities in the district. One of his children sailed through Portland Public Schools, graduating from Lincoln High, while another dropped out.

Gonzales may occasionally go over the top, but the challenge of fixing such problems as the achievement gap and the high Latino dropout rate require a leader with his passion. In a board that tends to be heavy on lawyers and public employees, he'd give low-income parents the prospect of an effective voice.

Chief rival: On paper, David Wynde is the easy choice in this race. A banker who has immersed himself in budget and strategic-planning issues as a board member of the Portland Schools Foundation, Wynde brings a record of strong involvement and useful professional experience. The first in his family to graduate from college, the low-key British transplant is passionate when he talks about the importance of public education. If Wynde has a weakness, it may be that he's too nice a fellow to demand the accountability and academic achievement that are his top priorities.

Also-rans: John Sweeney, Rion Lyle and Louie Sloan.

ZONE 3: Northwest

John Ball

What wows us: Someone who could blow up--or at least shake up--the school-district headquarters.

What worries us: His boss.

The race to replace Marc Abrams is the toughest call on the ballot. Multnomah County Chief Operating Officer John Ball brings experience as a well-regarded elected official (Eugene City Council, Lane County Commission) and high-level public administrator (he ran the state Commission on Children and Families) and is the county's top unelected official.

Numerous critics, however, claim that Ball is a ruthless hatchet man who leaves organizations in worse shape than he found them and is in this race only to help County Chair Diane Linn make good on a promise. It's also not clear why Ball, who has neither kids nor a record of involvement with Portland schools, is running.

If elected, Ball would join another high-level county official on the board, incumbent Lolenzo Poe. Is Linn trying to stack the school board or is Ball's candidacy merely part of an effort to rein in teacher health-care costs, which the county chair vowed to do when she backed the school-bailout initiative, Measure 26-48? Greater coordination between the county and the district certainly makes sense, since many of their functions overlap, but that's a shift in policy that deserves careful public scrutiny--outside the rough-and-tumble of a school board election.

Nonetheless, after making dozens of phone calls, we've concluded that the board's need for Ball's particular skills outweighs the risks of a hostile takeover by the county.

Today, the Portland district suffers from a credibility gap. Even though the board is moving in the right direction on student achievement and cost containment, its efforts are often chaotic--as the just-finished teacher contract negotiations showed--and less effective than they should be.

Ball's supporters, who include some of the district's most knowledgeable observers, say he's got the management skills and the backbone to zero in on district shortcomings and demand solutions. Somewhat surprisingly for a man known as a cost-cutter and terminator, Ball enjoys strong union backing, which won't hurt.

At the county, he has overseen wrenching changes to the mental-health and human-service programs. The jury is still out on the effectiveness of some of those changes, but he has shown an ability to manage a large organization through drastic budget cuts--and, at least on the mental-health side, statistics show the county is doing a better job.

Chief rival: The other top contender, parent activist Bobbie Regan, is less controversial. For nearly a decade, Regan, a former congressional aide who later worked in the telecommunications industry, has been one of the leading advocates for greater school funding. She is smart and effective.

Along with a handful of others, she forced local officials to put Measure 26-48 on the ballot. If Regan were running in almost any other district, or in any other year, she'd get our nod. But given the circumstances, we think Ball is the better choice.

Also-rans: John Lekas, James Laidler, Sam Oakland and James West.

ZONE 7: Southeast

Richard Garrett

What wows us: His knowledge of where the bodies are buried.

What worries us: His allegiance to the bodies that pay union dues.

Richard Garrett scares the hell out of some people. Garrett, 61, the former head of the Portland Association of Teachers, is as blunt as he is brainy. The holder of a Ph.D in philosophy from Columbia University, Garrett looks like a longshore boss but spends much of his free time poring over heavily footnoted tomes on subjects such as the history of school busing and labor relations.

Garrett began his 27-year instructional career in Portland teaching first grade and will end it this spring teaching math at Roosevelt High. As union president from 1997 to 2002, he was the district's most persistent critic, battling district leadership on subjects ranging from a bloated bureaucracy to the district's unsuccessful desegregation efforts.

We think Garrett will bolster the board for three reasons: first, he knows more about the district's inner workings than all of the other candidates combined. That knowledge will be helpful because the board has no staff, leaving its members almost completely dependent on administrators for information.

Second, Garrett is fearless. Too often, the board has shied away from tough decisions or demanding accountability from staff.

Garrett's third attribute is that he has the ability to improve the dysfunctional relationship between the district and its teachers.

Garrett's strength as a union leader could also be his biggest weakness: Critics question whether he will be able look at the big picture and not simply rubber-stamp union demands.

That's a risk, but there are reasons to believe he'll be independent. First of all, he's retiring and will have nothing to fear from opposing union positions. Second, Garrett takes orders from nobody. Last fall, for example, he split with PAT leadership in the City Council race. Like other unions, the teachers backed Randy Leonard, the former head of the firefighters union. But Garrett publicly endorsed Nick Fish, which earned him the silent treatment from some colleagues.

A voracious consumer of educational research, Garrett says the solution to student-achievement woes is a strong, consistent curriculum, which he says many Portland schools lack.

At times, Garrett's bluntness can morph into meanness. Rather than excessive loyalty to the unions, his biggest challenge is likely to be channeling his intellect and energy into positive change.

His top rival: Garrett's strongest opponent is Dilafruz Williams, an education prof at PSU. Williams may be the first candidate ever to attempt to follow her child onto the board (son James was the board's student rep while at Lincoln High). She's intelligent and has a history of involvement in the district, having helped found the highly successful Environmental Middle School. But Williams lacks Garrett's understanding of the district's weaknesses and his determination to do something about them.

Also-rans: Jon Jacob and Richard Nichols.

Portland Community College Board Zone 2 (Portland to St. Helens)

Harold Williams

Quick. Name Oregon's largest institution of higher education. U of O? Portland State? Sorry. When it comes to live bodies, the Ducks and Vikings can't stack up to Portland Community College, which serves more than 100,000 students annually.

You won't see PCC banners flying from car antennae, but chances are you know someone who attends one of PCC's three campuses (in North Portland, Southwest Portland and Washington County) or seven training centers, where you can do everything from brush up on your remedial math skills to earn an associate's degree in welding technology.

Many students are part-timers or people in the midst of career change; the average age is 35.6. PCC has always played a vital, if not terribly glamorous role, but as a center of community services and workforce development, it now matters more than ever to Oregon.

These days, PCC is challenged to manage budget cuts and keep rising tuition from forcing out its students. No one knows this more than incumbent Harold Williams. By all accounts, Williams, in his 12 years on the seven-member board, has been a passionate steward of the college's mission, exhorting colleagues and administrators to maintain PCC's accessibility and commitment to diversity, in both classroom and contracts.

Williams represents Zone 2, which stretches from Northeast Portland to St. Helens. In recent years the Cascade campus's expansion has wedged Williams between the board, which seeks to extend the college's reach, and his North Portland constituents, who fear it could overwhelm the community and eliminate low-cost housing. He has navigated carefully, and successfully, between the two groups.

Williams is president of CH2A Associates, a contracting firm, which has led some observers to quietly question his constant crusade to include African-American contractors in PCC projects. Others suggest that the board, which is not subject to term limits, could use some new blood (some members have been on the board since 1985).

But if Williams' opponent, Sonja Harju, has some fresh ideas about higher education, we haven't found them. Her suicide-prevention activism, while an admirable crusade, fails to prepare her for the often-excruciating minutiae of community-college director.

With his unwavering message of access and diversity, Williams can come off sounding like a broken record. Given the rising cost of education, however, it's a tune we need to hear.

Multnomah Education Service District Position 6 (At-large)

Janice Gratton

We, we double-dare any bureaucracy-bashing, politician-trashing, knee-jerk "government is the problem" Limbaugh lover to spend a few minutes with the members of the Multnomah Education Service District. This is a group that puts the "service" back into public service.

It's a tedious, near-anonymous volunteer post that picks up the scraps of education policy left on the table by local school boards. The state's 21 ESDs, as they're known, are particularly crucial in rural counties, where they take on many of the administrative tasks that would be difficult for small, far-flung districts. In Multnomah County, $64.1 million in federal, state and local funds pass through the ESD, which is responsible for services such as student health care, special education assistance, printing and bulk purchasing of school supplies. The district also operates an alternative high school, educates kids kept in the local detention center and runs the popular Outdoor School.

Luckily, voters in Multnomah County have always had a handful of highly capable candidates willing to serve on the board. The best of this year's crop is Janice Gratton, running for an at-large position now held by Ron Chinn.

Gratton, a former county social worker and administrator, has been an advisory member of the board since 1995 and would need no on-the-job training. In addition to battling with cuts to school programs, she sees the board's biggest challenge as promoting better cooperation between Portland and the seven other districts in the county. The fact that she's been endorsed by the entire county board is an indication that she's in a good position to do that.

Gratton has two challengers, only one of whom deserves consideration. Computer consultant Dan Fitzgerald is a first-time candidate who rightly wonders what the hell this elected board does with the money that comes to it. It's a great question, but unfortunately, he hasn't bothered to find out any of the answers during the campaign. The third candidate, Ron McCarty, set a new standard of ineffectiveness during two embarrassing terms in the state Legislature. He somehow got elected to the Mount Hood Community College Board, which is as far as his political career should ever go.

Multnomah Education Service District Position 7, Zone 3 (Southeast/Southwest Portland)

William E. Connor

Since 1997, Ron Chinn has been an energetic, forward-thinking member of the MESD, after winning an at-large slot on the board. He's now running to fill the No. 6 position, left vacant by Arlene Collins, who died in February.

A computer-components salesman, Chinn pushed to infuse traditional vocational programs with more marketable technology certification, though the plan was later deemed too costly. Lately Chinn's record has been blemished by absences and animosity over a protracted dispute regarding the disappearance of a district-owned laptop computer he signed out. He says it was stolen while left at a friend's office. The board contends Chinn was using the computer for non-MESD business and, under threat of an ethics investigation, forced him to refund its value. Chinn says the issue is resolved, as are distractions stemming from his divorce and a sick parent. We hope that's true, but Chinn has lost the confidence of fellow board members and seems unlikely to be as effective as his challenger, William Connor, who was appointed to fill out the remainder of Collins' term.

A professor in the division of endocrinology, diabetes and clinical nutrition at Oregon Health & Science University, Connor brings substantial expertise to the board. In addition to his teaching duties, Connor and his wife, Sonja, a dietician, have written several books on nutrition. And Connor's research in fields like coronary-disease risk factors in children is particularly relevant given the MESD's oversight of school health programs. A parent and grandparent of public-school students, Connor has also demonstrated his commitment to education and community service. Well-informed on the role of an oft-overlooked board, Connor is also is well-equipped to fulfill it. Candidate TipsCandidate tip No. 1

Try to get out a little bit more.

(Courtesy of John Ball, Portland School Board Zone 3)

Endorsements from former governors are great additions to a voters' pamphlet statement. They're even better when they were made in one of the past two decades. Current quotes from parents are also a nice touch. They're even more effective when that parent doesn't work for you.
Candidate tip No. 2

Be prepared.

(Courtesy of John Lekas, Portland School Board Zone 3)

If you and your insurance company once shelled out $550,000 to an ex-girlfriend in the state's first herpes-related lawsuit after she claimed you knew you had the contagious virus before you had unprotected sex (see "Sore Loser," WW, Aug. 28, 1996), you can bet that at some point in the campaign, someone will point it out.
Candidate tip No. 3

Those who can't....

(Courtesy of Dilafruz Williams, Portland School Board Zone 7)

If a former school-board chairman recruits you to run for the board and you list his endorsement in your voters' pamphlet statement, you should make sure you spell his first name
correctly. Bonus tip: If his pals say they'll raise money for your campaign, ask for the cash up front.
Candidate tip No. 4

Check your work.

(Courtesy of Jon Jacob, Portland School Board Zone 7)

Even if you're a computer programmer with degrees from UMichigan and Brown University, you should have someone proofread your website ( Either that, or explain to voters that you reject the traditional ordinal paradigm, which is why your "positions in a nutshell" are numbered 1, 7, 8, 6 and 6.
Candidate tip No. 5

If you've got it, flaunt it.

(Courtesy of John Sweeney, Portland School Board Zone 2)

When your major proposal for education reform is to give all male students a subscription to Popular Mechanics magazine (we're not making this up), then by all means don't just share it with a newspaper; put it in your campaign literature! Similarly, if you run for Congress again, you should make more of your idea for building bridges out of stainless steel to curb maintenance costs.