With Portland public-school politics roiling over school closures, school-board candidates have until Thursday to file for the May 17 election. Perhaps the most intriguing entry so far is 19-year-old Charles McGee, running for the seat now held by Derry Jackson. McGee, a Liberian-born graduate of Franklin High School, is studying political science at Portland State University. What follows is a condensation of two interviews, one before his declaration, one after.
WW: What's making you look at the school board?
Charles McGee: Every now and again, we need a fairly young person to shake the tree up and say, 'What else can we do to improve a system that obviously is not serving everyone properly?'
How are you going to convince voters that a 19-year-old has the life experience, the skills necessary to run an organization that has a big budget, several thousand employees and huge problems?
Although there are certain things that you get with age, there are also certain things you don't have with age. I can walk into a high-school classroom and sit down any day and act like a high-school student. I can sit down in a meeting with the teachers union and tell them what didn't work in our class. I can also call up some friends who go to Franklin, and Grant, and say, "What's happening?" I can do that; these folks can't. When they hear information, they hear it through administrators and teachers.
What do you think your biggest weakness is?
It would probably be that I am an honest and blunt person, and I say what people don't want to hear. I believe that a lot of times in the public arena, folks don't want to hear honest answers.
Who do you think is the most effective board member?
Effective is a very subjective word.
You're a blunt and honest guy, so....
I don't think I'd say something of that nature if I might be sitting on the board with those individuals.
Why, in your view, has the board not been successful?
I never said the board was unsuccessful.
You talked about the achievement gap getting wider and why there's a need for a guy with your skill set to be on the board, so there must be something lacking....
I also think that we can't necessarily blame everything on the board.
So you're saying the board is doing a good job.
I'm not saying that, either.
Let's rewind the tape. You just told us you're a blunt and honest guy.
I'm a blunt and honest guy, but I'm also intelligent enough of an individual to know that if I might sit on the board and have an agenda I want to accomplish, the worst thing to do is to have WW write up an article saying....
Either the board is doing a great job or they are not.
I will say that I do not agree with every single decision the board has made.
What do you want to do after college?
I think there are a lot of things for an energetic self-proclaimed dork like myself. After I graduate, I would like to take some time and assess my last four years.
Did you personally encounter a lot of racism at Franklin?
I think it's always hard when you're in the minority, and I encountered a lot of things that folks encounter when they're in the minority-whatever you want to call it.
What do you do for fun when you're not thinking about policy?
Something I love to do is watch C-SPAN-put that in and I'll kill you. No, I'm kidding. I love to go out to movies, I love to go out with friends, I go to high-school basketball games sometimes. I love to sit around and talk to people. I'm a talker.
You're a young, up-and-coming black guy. Do you feel like people are putting pressure on you?
Because I'm a big-mouth, I've always felt a lot of pressure, and I've always been the type of guy who folks have been like, "Charles, you can't go there, you can't do this because of who you are.'' It's never held me back.