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March 15th, 2006 Don Mcintosh | News Stories
 

Save Our School

Portland school district budget problems leave parents at one elementary school fighting over the crumbs.

     
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IMAGE: TOMMY HUMPHREY
Hell hath no fury like parents who think Portland Public Schools will close their child's school.

Recent emails to superintendent Vicki Phillips from parents at Northeast Portland's Hollyrood Elementary, which draws heavily from middle-class and upper-middle-class neighborhoods around Grant Park, illustrate that anger.

"If the board wants to close Hollyrood, you've got a fight on your hands," wrote Scott Eads, a lawyer at Perkins Coie.

Another parent, Prashant Dubey, vice president of a legal-services company, hinted at a visit to Catlin Gabel's headmaster if Hollyrood closes.

And Samuel J. Panarella, a lawyer at Stoel Rives, wrote that closing Hollyrood "would be a decision so foolhardy and ill-conceived that it strains the mind to think of any possible rationale.... Closing such a school is madness, pure and simple."

Those emails and others illuminate the hassles facing Phillips as she and the school board struggle to plug a $50 million-plus budget gap left largely by the demise of the Multnomah County income tax.

Their problem: Unless the district shows reluctant taxpayers it's cutting expenses by closing schools, it won't look thrifty enough to win them over to new tax proposals. But if it starts closing schools like Hollyrood, one of Oregon's highest-performing elementaries and one that demonstrates the middle-class buy-in Portland desperately wants to maintain, it risks middle-class flight—to the 'burbs or private schools.

Education, after all, is how the professional middle class reproduces itself: Parents can give kids the material things, but class membership has to be re-earned each generation via college degrees.

So Hollyrood's neighborhood, thick with doctors, lawyers and engineers, takes its school very seriously.

Hollyrood, the district's last K-3 elementary school, has one hallway, eight teachers, about 200 students, and a very committed parent community.

When Phillips met with the Hollyrood PTA on Feb. 28, some parents left feeling they were being prepped for a future closure announcement.

The district closed five schools last year. And Phillips again is weighing school closures as part of the response to next year's $57 million budget hole. Closing any Portland public school saves about $200,000 in the first year and $400,000 annually in subsequent years, according to district officials.

Phillips will present next year's budget to the school board in April, which is when parents would learn definitively of any proposed closures.

Hollyrood PTA president Craig Williams, who told the board Monday night that there is little money to be saved by closing schools, thinks the flurry of agitated emails following Phillips' visit was a "morning after" of panic and anger. Williams says most parents soon regained a sense of diplomacy.

The night after the superintendent's visit, as many as 100 parents crammed into a Hollyrood schoolroom to craft a response that opts for honey over vinegar in their correspondence with Phillips.

Phillips had asked Hollyrood parents for suggestions, and a group of them is now backing what they dub the Grant Park Campus Initiative. Kids would attend Hollyrood through second grade, then go to Fernwood Middle School from third to eighth grade. (Currently, Hollyrood kids go to Laurelhurst Elementary for grades four and five before feeding into Fernwood Middle School.)

No word on whether the district will take planning advice from a parent group. But some in that group have already made clear the alternative in their emails: Middle-class Portlanders' support for urban public schools, much envied by other cities, is alive—but only for now.

 
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