May elections are usually a time for spring cleaning. This one demands a full rebuild.
Across the Portland ballot, we found evidence of broken systems. Most obviously, there's the record $790 million construction bond for Portland Public Schools, which asks taxpayers to fix decaying buildings suffering from age and lack of upkeep.
The upcoming election (ballots are mailed this week and must be turned in by May 16) also features races for three positions on the Portland School Board, which shares blame for the 2016 lead scandal that eroded trust in the district. It also includes two unglamorous but important changes to the operation of Portland city government. (There are other races we haven't covered here, though we will address some of them: Look for our endorsements for the Multnomah Education Service District next week.)
As always, we invited all candidates in each race to visit our offices for a filmed group interview. (Video is posted here.) We asked them tough questions, as well as a lighter one: How were you described in your high school yearbook?
There's an old saying in politics: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
This year, the truth is harsher: It's broke. Time for fixin'.
Portland Public Schools bond
The big-ticket item in this election is also a referendum on the future of public education in this city.
Portland Public Schools is asking voters for $790 million, the largest school bond measure in state history, to replace three of the district's nine high schools and repair widespread health and safety hazards in dozens of crumbling buildings.
Taxpayers would pay the money back over 30 years. The estimated cost for a home assessed at $200,000, about the county average, starts at $280 a year for the first four years and steps down to an average of $136 per year over the bond's life.
Let's start with the obvious: PPS management hardly inspires confidence. Graduation rates remain unacceptably low, even though the district spends more per student than the state average, thanks to the generosity of local voters.
Last summer, WW reported on lead contamination in the drinking water at dozens of schools—a danger the district knew about since at least 2012. Instead of fixing the problem, PPS tried to hide it from teachers and parents. The scandal highlighted poor communication, insufficiently trained staff, and years of deferred maintenance.
Yet the School Board still clung to the chief enabler of that culture, Superintendent Carole Smith, and parted with her only after public outcry of her mishandling of the district's lead crisis grew too loud to ignore.
So why, given all the ways in which PPS has failed students and their families, should voters give it more money?
One number tells the story: 77. That is the average age of the district's 90 school buildings. Anybody who has stepped inside those buildings has seen the dilapidated, outdated spaces. They haven't seen the invisible dangers: lead, radon, asbestos and other hazards lurking inside school walls or the lack of modern precautions against fires and earthquakes.
Since it launched its first wave of capital reconstruction with a 2012 bond that raised $482 million, the district has been clear it would make a succession of bond requests to repair many of its buildings. And while PPS has grappled with numerous other problems, audits and other records show it has actually performed admirably in spending the 2012 bond money.
In the bond now before voters, parents and the community chose to address present dangers such as lead and asbestos. It's obvious the district needs to address immediate health hazards. In all, $150 million will be spent to address those problems, including making sure the water is safe to drink at every district school. The balance will be spent mostly on renovating two schools and demolishing and rebuilding two others.
The district still faces risks that will remain unaddressed by this bond. Not every school will get badly needed fire safety equipment even with this expenditure. And more than 20 school buildings contain unreinforced masonry, which could crumble in an earthquake.
And three of the four buildings slated for replacement or renovation under the bond were not identified as among the most likely to collapse in an earthquake: Lincoln and Madison high schools and Kellogg Middle School. (The fourth school—Benson High—is indeed high-risk.) District officials say they are deferring a response to such seismic dangers because they simply cannot fix every problem, even with $790 million.
Of course, district leaders must consider factors other than a possible earthquake. Benson is being renovated not just to make it a safer place, but also to help restore its status as a top-notch career and technical education institution. The school was once a crown jewel of PPS, and preparing students for careers is part of the district's mission.
Madison has steadily improved its educational reputation while serving a diverse student body. The bond's backers also say Madison demonstrated the greatest need for a building upgrade.
Kellogg is being rebuilt as part of an effort to prepare the district to reopen middle schools on the eastside. For a decade, PPS has failed to provide adequate course offerings, including advanced classes, to many of its sixth-through-eighth-grade students. Rebuilding Kellogg is an important step toward equalizing the opportunity across the district.
Among high schools, only Lincoln, the district's most affluent and highest performer, is getting a totally new building. That's disconcerting in a district so focused on equity. But Lincoln is also the district's most crowded high school, and replacing its decrepit structure is both a rare example of rewarding success and, as one Madison parent on the bond committee noted, a nod to political reality.
New buildings alone won't be enough to improve outcomes. That will require a greater level of accountability from central administration and school principals, and a willingness on the board's part to make hard decisions about boundary changes to rebalance attendance throughout the district.
In Oregon's approach to school finance, most of the money to operate schools comes from legislative appropriations. But the money to build or renovate schools must come from local taxpayers.
Renovating and replacing those schools is a generational responsibility most of us have avoided until now, even though many of us have benefited from public schools.
So yes, the district's management has done a poor job in many ways. That does not change the need for safe, modern buildings. That need is great, and it is our collective responsibility to fund the fixes and to demand accountability as the district makes the repairs.
Portland School Board, Zone 4
During the past decade, the Portland School Board has proven itself dysfunctional and passive. The board's lack of oversight allowed health hazards at schools to go unreported for years, while allowing Superintendent Carole Smith to oversee a flaccid administrative culture in which responsibility was shirked and problems covered up.
The next batch of School Board members are tasked with fixing that culture and potentially overseeing a record-sized construction bond. This task will require a loyal skeptic of the district who can frankly assess whether the new superintendent is creating change.
In the race to succeed board member Steve Buel, that person is Rita Moore.
There are few advocates in Portland as devoted to watchdogging the district as Moore. A health policy consultant in her day job, she has spent more than a decade volunteering, first at her son's school and then, even after he graduated, on the district's budget advisory committee. Moore does not pull punches when talking about Smith's failures and assessing how PPS avoided confronting its biggest problems, especially unequal curricular offerings.
Her opponent, Jamila Singleton Munson, seemed less willing to call for systemic change. That's disappointing, especially since she's a professional member of the education reform movement. A Grant High graduate, she's a longtime staffer for Teach for America and backed by charter-school advocates. But in our endorsement interview, Munson defended the status quo and blamed the district's bad reputation on negative press. She also seemed unfamiliar with the day-to-day operations of the district and the board. Munson has spent much of her time out of state, teaching in New York and California, and hasn't done her homework on local issues. We fear she could create new problems—by advocating for charter schools—without bothering to fix old ones.
The edge in experience and candor goes to Moore.
What Moore's high school yearbook said about her: "Red Sox or politics—what's she going to talk about next?"
Portland School Board, Zone 5
This race presents the toughest choice on the May ballot, offering two strong candidates who offer different styles and levels of experience.
Scott Bailey is a labor economist and parent activist whose two decades of volunteering have yielded an encyclopedic knowledge of the district, its arcane finances and the Vatican-like workings of the central administration building. Bailey has lent his time to thorny issues: the 2012 bond campaign and helping sort out district boundaries, a tortured process that remains incomplete.
Virginia La Forte is a hard-charging marketing executive who grabbed hold of an issue—lead paint on the playground at Alameda Elementary—and forced the district to address it. La Forte possesses a stronger personality and has also worked on other problems, specifically the distribution of funds for the Talented and Gifted program, which were going unused at many schools.
We've watched board members in recent years make bold claims prior to their election, only to fall meekly in line with district leadership because they simply lack knowledge of PPS and its schools. That's where we'll give Bailey a narrow edge in the race to succeed board member Pam Knowles: His breadth of knowledge and familiarity with schools here and in Clark County, Wash., which he advises in his day job, make him a better choice. And although endorsements from interest groups don't always mean much in board races, Bailey managed to get the nod of two education groups who agree on almost nothing: the Portland Association of Teachers and Stand for Children. We'll join them.
Traci Flitcraft, a software marketer and former sports photographer, is also running. Her desire to serve is commendable, but she can't match her opponents' experience.
What Bailey's high school yearbook said about him: "I was the brain," he says.
Portland School Board, Zone 6
The choice in the race for this central eastside seat, currently held by Board Chairman Tom Koehler, is an easy one: former board member Julia Brim-Edwards.
Brim-Edwards, a government affairs executive at Nike, brings decades of political and boardroom experience to the race. A Portland Public Schools graduate and parent of three children who attended PPS schools, she also possesses a granular knowledge of district schools and a familiarity with both grassroots advocates and district bureaucracy. As a member of the board from 2001 to 2005, Brim-Edwards showed herself to be tenacious, diligent and willing to ask hard questions. After leaving the board, she remained active in educational policy at the state level, serving on the Oregon Education Investment Board and as a volunteer with the Portland Parents Coalition. That group successfully forced PPS to restore instructional hours at high schools in 2014.
In recent years, the board has lacked political savvy and a willingness to hold district leadership accountable. Brim-Edwards possesses both qualities in spades.
None of her opponents actively in the race—software engineer Zach Babb, biologist Josie Simonis, Boy Scouts executive Ed Bos, and anti-Wi-Fi crusader David Morrison—presents real competition.
What Brim-Edwards' high school yearbook said about her: "Most athletic." She earned 12 letters at the now-shuttered Washington-Monroe High School.
City auditor independence
The Portland auditor's office plays a vital role at City Hall. The auditor is the city's independently elected watchdog, grading the efficiency of city operations and spending, fielding complaints from citizens, and scrutinizing the behavior of police officers all the way up to the chief.
Yet the auditor's office and its affiliated ombudsman's office lack the autonomy they need to perform their jobs without fear of retribution from council members or even irritated bureaucrats.
That flaw in Portland government became clear two years ago, when Auditor Mary Hull Caballero began scrutinizing how Mayor Charlie Hales handled lobbying by Uber and other companies seeking to sway his votes. The resulting power struggle revealed the need to draw clear lines that protect investigations of ethical lapses and police shootings from being compromised.
Hull Caballero has introduced a docket of common-sense reforms. This measure would make sure the auditor's budget is kept outside the mayor's budgeting exercises and bureau directors' authority, though the council will still vote on the budget. It would formally establish the ombudsman's office in the city charter, assuring citizens an ear to hear their complaints. Most importantly, it gives the auditor the authority to decide when the City Attorney's Office is too compromised to offer legal advice, and then hire outside counsel. That eliminates a significant conflict of interest: When City Hall is rocked by its next scandal, the city attorney cannot advise both the mayor and the independent office that scrutinizes his decisions.
We applaud Hull Caballero for pursuing transparency and demanding freedom to represent the people of Portland. We urge citizens to vote yes.
Lodging tax on short-term rentals
This measure is a technical change to the city charter that would ensure short-term rental lodging companies are subject to the taxes already paid by hotels.
In fact, the charter change, referred to the ballot by a unanimous vote of the City Council, is specifically designed to target one company that has avoided paying lodging taxes. HomeAway and VRBO, both owned by Expedia, do not collect or send the city such taxes on behalf of property owners who rent out their homes.
This charter change is aimed at closing the loopholes that have allowed the company to escape paying the city up to $500,000 a year in taxes. (VRBO's better-known competitor, Airbnb, already pays such taxes.)
HomeAway, sued by the city last year, won a round in federal court last year with the argument that existing city code did not technically define the company as an "operator" of a hotel in the way that Holiday Inn or Marriott are. Voters should approve this change to update the existing code written decades ago and require new Silicon Valley companies to remit payment going forward. Doing so would level the playing field among HomeAway and its competitors, since the company currently enjoys the advantage of charging lower prices while not paying taxes.
It may also mean more money for city coffers, depending on the outcomes of other HomeAway lawsuits. We support a measure that gives city officials more incentive and resources to vigorously enforce existing codes that require licensing and safety inspections for anyone renting out a room or house on the internet.
Multnomah Education Service District
In some elections, opening your ballot can provide an education.
Tucked between a record $790 million Portland Public Schools construction bond and three Portland School Board races is an entity many voters won't recognize: the Multnomah Education Service District.
Few people are familiar with MESD, a government agency with an $81 million annual budget and few headlines. MESD uses its state and grant funding to provide eight school districts (including PPS) with school nurses, tech and special education services as well as Outdoor School.
In 2015, the district received a tsunami of bad press when a former Oregon Teacher of the Year said he was fired after claiming discrimination based on sexual orientation. (He was rehired, and eventually settled with MESD.) That same spring, the MESD board dumped its superintendent over her management style.
Two years later, that leak of unpleasant news has been stanched. In 2016, MESD hired a new superintendent, Sam Breyer, out of Centennial School District. MESD started tracking annual goals and launched new programs, several of them aimed at its most at-risk kids.
In this election, MESD has four contested races to consider.
Here are our picks.
Position 2, At-Large
The race to succeed Nels Johnson in a position spanning all of Multnomah County presents a contrast between an insider and outsider of local schools.
Helen Ying is a hearings officer at Parkrose High School—a job that means deciding whether to expel students from the school in Northeast Portland. She's a first-generation immigrant from Hong Kong who brings 30 years of teaching experience in Portland schools, ideas for new ways to reach out to minority kids, and a bevy of endorsements. (In 2012, Ying ran for Metro Council—an unsuccessful bid marred by questions of whether she actually lived in the district where she campaigned.)
Kristin Cornuelle is an intellectual property lawyer who serves as president of the Bridlemile Parent Teacher Association in the West Hills. She moved to Portland five years ago from the San Francisco area, where she represented tech companies. In her short time here, she's plunged into volunteering and coaching basketball, and gets raves for her advocacy for special-needs students.
It's a close call. But Cornuelle gets the nod—both for bringing fresh ideas and being the rare Bay Area tech transplant to take her formidable private-sector chops to Portland's social issues. We also like that she declined to do any fundraising for this race, a sign that she's seeking the office as public service.
John Sweeney is also running. He served on the MESD board from 1979 to 1987. He's been a perennial office-seeker since then, but his ideas haven't demonstrably evolved.
What Cornuelle's high school yearbook said about her: "Most fun on a deserted island."
Position 1, Zone 5
(Gresham, Fairview, Troutdale and portions of Clackamas County)
Susie Jones taught music classes in East Multnomah County for more than 30 years—saxophone and flute are her specialties. But her more relevant experience is on the Mt. Hood Community College board. That's a fractious elected body (board member George "Sonny" Yellott hijacked meetings last year with rants about undocumented immigrants) in which Jones has repeatedly fought to pass a general obligation bond with a constituency averse to taxes. "We're an elected board, and we can't fire each other," she says. "You have to mold seven individuals into a team."
Her opponent, Abigail Howatt, is a special-education assistant in the Gresham-Barlow School District. She didn't reply to WW's requests for an interview.
What Jones' high school yearbook said about her: She was voted "most talented" at Lebanon High School.
Position 3, Zone 2 (Inner Portland)
Mary Botkin boasts a fascinating life story: As a white student at majority-black Jefferson High School, she was galvanized to travel to the Deep South as part of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. She then became a longtime political director for the Oregon chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the largest labor union of public employees in the U.S., until retirement two years ago.
On the MESD board, where she's served since 2015, Botkin is distinguished by bigheartedness: In her endorsement interview, she displayed photos of at-risk students from Helensview School like a doting grandmother. (Botkin championed a visit to the Oregon Capitol for them—something no education service district had tried before.) She's focused on new ideas to help the most troubled kids, including a plan to bring "dorm dogs" to the Donald E. Long Juvenile Detention Center as four-legged means to lower stress.
Her opponent, Joe Hanson, didn't provide a biography in the Voters' Pamphlet or answer our calls.
What Botkin's high school yearbook would have said about her: "Lost."
Position 4, Zone 4 (East Portland)
The incumbent in this position, Francisco "Frank" Acosta Jr., works campus security for PPS. He's served one term in office, but didn't show up for WW's endorsement interview.
He faces two spirited challengers. Jodi Ballard-Beach is a projects manager for Multnomah County who co-chairs the Oregon Women's Equity Coalition. She wants to focus on early education and increase graduation rates.
But the most promising candidate in this race is Jessica Arzate. She's a second-generation Mexican-American from California who manages the early learning program at United Way. Her endorsement interview was a struggle: She couldn't identify practical ways for the district to improve, or how she would perform more ably than Acosta. But Arzate's passion for underserved students was clear, and she'll provide a needed perspective in a part of Portland that is growing more diverse. She gets our vote.
What Arzate's high school yearbook would have said about her: "Most likely to be a writer."
CORRECTIONS: The print version of these endorsements says HomeAway sued the city of Portland. In fact, the city sued HomeAway. Our endorsement of Rita Moore incorrectly said that Jamila Singleton Munson taught school in New York and Oklahoma. In fact, she taught in New York and California. WW regrets the errors.