This week, the Portland School Board and the Portland City Council are poised to sign a memorandum of understanding that commits $5 million of the district's proposed $548 million construction bond to transportation improvements around several schools should Portland voters approve the school district's new tax levy in May.

That agreement, set for a vote at the School Board tonight and at City Council on Wednesday, stems from a zoning-code battle that consumed neighborhood activists, planning officials, the Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission and Portland Public Schools for nearly three years.

That dispute was far from simple. And the source of the dispute—and this week's memorandum of understanding between the district and the city—had nothing to do with transportation infrastructure.

In 2008, school and neighborhood activists complained to Portland planning officials that decisions by the Portland School Board under former Superintendent Vicki Phillips had violated city policy and the city's own zoning code. Activists said Phillips' decision to close and consolidate several schools exacerbated racial segregation in schools.

In October 2008, planning officials with the city acknowledged that the activists had a point about zoning code violations. Yet city officials were unclear about how to proceed. According to Portland's Bureau of Development Services, Portland's conditional-use-review code regulates changes in school level. However, Portland's zoning code did not then define what a change in school level was. Thus the confusion.

In January 2010, the volunteer members of Portland's Planning and Sustainability Commission waded into the charged dispute. And on Jan. 12, the planning commission crafted a set of recommendations that then went to City Council for review. But before that even happened, one particular recommendation—to require PPS to conduct Type III land-use reviews at five middle schools that became K-8s—drew heat from the school district. The planning commission contended those schools needed extra evaluation not because of concerns related to racial segregation but instead to make sure middle schools got necessary transportation improvements to accommodate younger children. (Harrison Park School, the result of adding Clark Elementary School to Binnsmead Middle School, offers a striking example of what planning commissioners were worried about.)

In a testy April 2010 letter to Mayor Sam Adams and the rest of City Council, PPS Superintendent Carole Smith wrote, "these are school programming issues and fall squarely under the jurisdiction of the Portland Public Schools duly elected Board of Education." She added: "The appropriate venue for discussion of these issues is the Board of Education and PPS's public involvement efforts regarding educational program changes."

This week's memorandum of understanding seems to suggest Adams agrees with Smith. Reversing the decision by the planning commission from last year, Adams now says the five middle schools in Portland that added younger grades do not need conditional land use reviews, a process that would have cost the district about $75,000 in city fees.

Instead, PPS will commit $5 million of $548 million from its upcoming construction bond to transportation infrastructure improvements. That, of course, is assuming Portland Public Schools voters approve the bond in May.