April 19th, 2010 5:33 pm | by BETH SLOVIC News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, Schools, City Hall

Carole Smith to City Council: Butt Out!

Portland City Council
Just days before she is expected to unveil Portland Public Schools' controversial high school redesign, Superintendent Carole Smith penned an angry four-page missive [PDF] to Mayor Sam Adams and the rest of City Council forcefully asserting the school district's independence.

The reason for her letter has little on the surface to do with the impending changes to the district's high schools.

Instead, it is a response to a lengthy process at the city that grew out of neighborhood activists' zoning code complaints about PPS. And the back story requires similarly lengthy explanation.

The complaints date to 2008, when the neighborhood activists coordinated a campaign to show PPS violated the city's zoning code when the district made a number of grade-level changes at school sites under former Superintendent Vicki Phillips. Some of the complaints focused on Phillips' hastily reconfigured K-8s, yet the programmatic changes at the schools weren't the point of the activists' work. (They contend PPS's recent school closures and reconfigurations, which didn't get separate city reviews, have heightened segregation among the schools.)

In short order, Portland's Bureau of Development Services found the neighborhood activists' zoning-code complaints had merit. According to a Oct. 12, 2008 letter from BDS, Portland's conditional-use-review code regulates changes in school level but Portland's zoning code does not define what a change in school level is.

Thus began a nearly two-year tug of war over the city's zoning code. Activists complained PPS disregarded the rules when, for example, it added sixth graders to Jefferson High School in 2007 as part of Jeff's failed Young Men's Academy. PPS claims it didn't knowingly skirt the rules that required land-use reviews to make those changes.

Then Portland's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability stepped in. It began a review of the violations, which in January 2010 went before Portland's all-volunteer planning commission for a vote. On Jan. 12, the planning commission (whose members are appointed by City Council to advise City Hall on planning issues) crafted a set of recommendations. Those recommendations go before City Council on Thursday afternoon. But one particular recommendation -- to require PPS to conduct Type III land-use reviews at five middle schools that became K-8s, is drawing heat from the school district, according to Smith's recent letter.

City Council reserves the right to overturn the planning commission's recommendation, and that's what the school district wants to happen.

Except the district's response is not as straightforward as that. No, PPS's response to the commission's recommendation is about as confusing as the whole K-8 debacle in the first place. For one thing, the school district appears to be complaining only about some of the retroactive land-use reviews.

Mostly, however, the school district seems to be flexing its jurisdictional muscle. In the process, it doesn't offer the most flattering picture of itself. [Emphasis mine]

"The reconfiguration of many schools to become K-8s and the resulting closures were controversial, rushed and unevenly and inadequately implemented," the superintendent's April 7 letter reads. "We know that despite many families' embrace of the new school model many others are left with significant concerns and greater distrust of the district. However, these are school programming issues and fall squarely under the jurisdiction of the Portland Public Schools duly elected Board of Education; board directors are both responsible for the decisions and directly accountable to the public. The appropriate venue for discussion of these issues is the Board of Education and PPS's public involvement efforts regarding educational program changes."

Except that's not exactly true. New land-use reviews aren't going to decide where the school district should put its students. Rather, they'll look at ways to improve traffic safety for students, says Chris Smith, one of the planning commissioners who crafted the recommendation that will go before City Council this Thursday. The situation at Portland's Harrison Park School (the result of sending Clark Elementary students to Binnsmead Middle School) offers a clear example. To get to Harrison Park in outer Southeast Portland, students must cross both Powell Boulevard and Division Street. The planning commission would like a rigorous review of the school site to see if it needs traffic improvements like an additional stoplight. The school district takes issue with this. "The care and safety of students at school is the role and responsibility of public school districts," Smith's letter reads.

Then the letter pivots. "We share the Planning Commission's concern for the safety of all children as they travel to and from school," it reads. "I suggest that concerns regarding transportation safety for younger children in our public schools are better addressed by fully funding and implementing the Safe Routes to Schools Program for all public schools in the City."

And then it contradicts itself. "We have better and more appropriate ways to improve the safety of our children than subjecting PPS to a Type III conditional use review process for this particular grade level change," the letter reads. "The Type III review appears to be an attempt to punish PPS for not seeking conditional use reviews of previous grade level changes."

The K-8s in question are Clark at Binnsmead (now Harrison Park), Gregory Heights (now Roseway Heights), Ockley Green, Clarendon at Portsmouth, and Fernwood (now Beverly Cleary). The review process would cost the school district about $75,000 in fees to the city. But Smith's letter does not specifically take issue with this factor.
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