Steve Buel, Portland School Board's Resident Flamethrower, Drops Bid for Reelection

“Everything I might have accomplished felt like crawling uphill through blackberry bushes,” he wrote.

The most polarizing member of the Portland School Board announced this weekend he's backing out of the May 16 election, meaning there may be no incumbents on the upcoming ballot.

Steve Buel, a retired teacher who ousted an incumbent in 2013 by winning the support of the teachers union, wrote in a Facebook post on Saturday that he no longer felt he could commit the enormous amount of time necessary to perform the volunteer job well. He also said he had confidence in Portland Public Schools' pick for its next superintendent, Donyall Dickey, the finalist for the job announced Friday.

And he's tired.

"Everything I might have accomplished felt like crawling uphill through blackberry bushes," he wrote.

Buel, who as recently as December publicly affirmed he would run for re-election, faced an entirely different political landscape in 2017, compared with 2013, when teacher unrest was nearing a strike and dissatisfaction with then-Superintendent Carole Smith was about to boil over. It's unclear whether Buel's brand of cranky criticism of the district's failings would again gain traction with voters. Buel, for his part, says he's confident he would have won.

His tactics, though, had worn on people.

In an eight-page letter to the board from December, Portland principals banded together to publicly rebuke Buel for what they perceived to be unprecedented meddling by him into the administration of schools. Buel called the letter "totally wrong." But principals weren't the only source of pushback. Fellow board members, including Pam Knowles, repeatedly dressed down Buel for his habit of airing grievances publicly—and criticizing colleagues on the board.

Even Buel's allies saw his shortcomings. "He tries to overwhelm people," says fellow board member Paul Anthony, "by just continuing to talk."

For as many enemies as he had, Buel seemed to have the same number of fans.

"You have been a tireless advocate and have really helped bring about positive changes," Suzanne Cohen, president of the teachers union, wrote to Buel on Facebook on Saturday.

In any case Buel, 72, says he didn't join the board to make friends. He was in his second tour of duty, after having served one term beginning in 1979 at the height of Portland's contentious efforts to desegregate schools. If other board members joined in order to get along, he says, "then you didn't get things done for children."

It was against that tense backdrop, though, that two challengers entered the race. Rita Moore, a longtime parent activist, and Jamila Singleton Munson, an educator, have jumped into the race. Buel's seat represents North Portland, but school board members are elected districtwide.

Three out of seven seats on the board are up for grabs in May. Buel's decision to back out appears to mean there will be no incumbents on the ballot. Knowles has declined to say whether she would run for a third term representing Northeast Portland. Tom Koehler, the board chairman, also has declined to say publicly whether he would run again.

Interviews with the Portland Association of Teachers union take place Monday—without Knowles and Koehler.

Buel, who counts his four years as a success, appears to be poised to endorse Moore. And he wrote glowingly of Dickey on his Facebook post.

"If you are building a new house on a lot where you already have an old house you don't hire the same person to demolish the old house and to build the new house," he wrote on Facebook. "I am the guy you bring in to demolish the old house – I am the disrupter. What you need now is a builder and you have it in the new superintendent."

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