On May 21, Portland voters get a chance to reshape arguably the most city's most important institution, Portland Public Schools.
Ballots arrive in Portland mailboxes this weekend. Inside, four of the PPS board's seven seats are on the ballot.
The school district serves nearly 50,000 students and employs 8,500 adults in 81 schools across the city. Its general fund budget is $655 million.
The opportunity to reboot district leadership comes at a crucial time. PPS is in the middle of a multiyear, multibillion-dollar construction program. And the Legislature is poised to pass a tax increase that would funnel billions more into K-12 education.
A blistering secretary of state's audit earlier this year raised questions whether PPS spends its money effectively and why yawning student achievement gaps persist between the haves and the have-nots.
Current board leadership claims PPS has turned a corner. They say the problems the audit identified have been addressed and new Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero is laser-focused on more equitable and better results.
We hope that's true. But with only one incumbent vying for the four open PPS seats, the new board has a chance to demand that Guerrero deliver.
Also on the ballot: board races for two institutions that work hand in glove with Portland Public Schools.
These races may lack the sizzle of Bernie bros battling Beto, but they will help determine whether our next generation gets the education it deserves.
Portland Public Schools
Andrew Scott, interim chief operating officer at the regional government Metro, has the budgeting experience to help address a glaring weakness on the Portland School Board.
He is an easy choice to succeed Julie Esparza Brown, who decided not to run for a second term in this Southwest Portland seat. Good news, given that he is running essentially unopposed. Although Jeff Sosne's name also appears on the ballot as a candidate, he is no longer seeking the office.
Before joining Metro last year, Scott, 45, directed the city of Portland's budget office (and its precursor) for a decade. Scott says his priority is equity, specifically the mismatch between the opportunities in wealthier and poorer neighborhoods.
But his strengths will best serve the board on what Scott sees as his second priority: bringing more scrutiny to future bonds. He supports the effort to raise more money to repair Portland Public Schools' facilities, many of which are decrepit. Given his background, he'll bring valuable tools to a district smarting from a scathing recent audit, which sought to identify why the 2017 construction bond faces a more than $200 million budget gap. Scott says he can help the board regain public trust.
"We have got to acknowledge what happened," he says. "Now we need to go back to voters and say, 'Here's what we can do with the money you gave us. And here's what we're going to need to do in the future.' And then show them we have the internal controls to avoid the estimation errors. And that we've got a board that cares about getting this right."
Scott will shore up a long-standing weakness on the board, which includes lots of passion for PPS's mission but less financial acumen than a multibillion-dollar operation requires.
Scott's best school lunch experience: "I got the taco bar every day through most of high school," says the Wilson High School alum.
Michelle DePass has a four-generations-long relationship with the school district. Her grandmother and mother taught here. She and her children have attended Portland Public Schools.
That relationship will serve her well as the district struggles to improve schools, particularly for minority children whom the district has consistently failed.
DePass, 58, who is seeking the North/Northeast Portland seat being vacated by one-termer Paul Anthony, says the district must focus on the "opportunity gap," a reframing of the gap in achievement between white and black students, rich and poor. That term, she says, aims to highlight where the district needs to make change.
In her professional life, she works for the Portland Housing Bureau, as community engagement policy coordinator.
She faces Shanice Clark, who works as the program coordinator for the Pan-African Commons Student Center at Portland State University. Clark, 27, says the district must do more to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline, starting with addressing suspensions of even the youngest students.
The two women say they aren't different on the issues but rather in their approach and experiences. Given that, voters should choose experience and longtime ties to the district over youthful interest. Go with DePass.
DePass' best school lunch experience: Mushed-together spaghetti and whatever processed food the school offered, because she was raised on kale "before kale was popular."
Of the four School Board seats up for election this month, only one, this Northwest Portland seat, features an incumbent seeking another term.
Voters should reject Amy Kohnstamm's bid for another four years of service and instead select her opponent, newcomer Deb Mayer. Their contest should deliver a rebuke to Kohnstamm's record on the board.
Kohnstamm, 53, a former longtime board member of the foundations for Ainsworth Elementary, Lincoln High and the districtwide nonprofit All Hands Raised, defeated incumbent Bobbie Regan four years ago in the most expensive Portland School Board race ever (Kohnstamm spent $128,000, Regan $186,000).
She ran as a reform candidate, hoping to move the district past the ineffective leadership of then-Superintendent Carole Smith. In 2015, Kohnstamm promised "clear vision" and vowed she would be "hungry for results."
There have been notable problems with Kohnstamm's leadership since Smith's 2016 resignation, which left a power vacuum filled by the board. She was heavily involved in the board's 2017 decision to hire Donyall Dickey as the district's new superintendent, a process she called "the most important thing a board does." But after announcing Dickey's hiring, the board unhired him before he started work, an embarrassing admission that it had failed to vet him properly.
Then, Kohnstamm co-led the effort to get voters to approve a $790 million bond in 2017. A recent audit found a $200 million budget gap between the bond and the cost of projects it was supposed to pay for. That failing endangers the district's plans to overhaul more of its aging and potentially dangerous buildings.
Kohnstamm says under new Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero, PPS is poised to soar. That can only happen if the district adopts a culture of accountability that has been lacking. That accountability should start at the top. The district's students need better facilities. With Kohnstamm on the board, there will be ongoing questions about whether the board and district are capable of the oversight necessary to trust them again when the next bond comes up, which could be as soon as 2020.
Admittedly, Mayer, 69, a retired teacher and school administrator who worked in Florida and Indiana, is outside the mainstream. She's on the left flank of education activists, calling the kindergarten assessment each student receives "child abuse," and warning against the unproven health risks of the radiation emanating from Wi-Fi-connected devices.
But her concerns about excessive corporate influence in classrooms and the ills of screen-driven instruction are worthy of consideration. And no one will mistake her for a smooth-talking advocate who ultimately preserves the status quo. (Perennial candidate Wes Soderback is also on the ballot but isn't running a serious campaign.)
Kohnstamm's not worried about losing: She's raised less than $3,000 so far. But elections should have consequences for leaders who've fallen short. Vote for Mayer.
Mayer's best school lunch experience: She penned an op-ed for The Washington Post a few years ago noting the correlation between well-fed students and academic performance, but she also fondly recalls eating cinnamon buns at her children's schools.
Eilidh Lowery is a natural for the School Board.
It would be a seamless next step in her service to Portland's schools and the city.
Lowery, 41, has volunteered in her child's school, including through the school foundation, and on the district's citizens' budget review committee as well as the district's principal review team. She's also a docent at the Portland Art Museum.
In her private life, she's a Methodist minister, a job she credits with helping her gain experience in learning to seek multiple perspectives when conflicts arise. That will serve her well in the crucible of irate parents, powerful labor groups and the politics of education funding.
Lowry has a gentle style, but she's learned to push the district for answers on why the status quo persists, including, for example, in the district's approach to problems with scheduling electives at her child's middle school.
Robert Schultz, 46, who has served on the board of the Lents Neighborhood Association, has less experience to recommend him. It also seems unlikely Schultz could withstand the withering criticism that School Board members sometimes face. He lost his temper when challenged and left the WW endorsement interview.
Lowry's best school lunch experience: As a kid in Salem, she loved the days there was turkey gravy and she could serve herself a little bit of turkey and lot of gravy on her mashed potatoes.
Portland Community College
Portland Community College is Oregon's largest post-secondary educational institution, serving about 73,000 students at four campuses in the metro area.
Community colleges are the neglected stepchild of the state's education system: Their students inspire less passion (and union support) than K-12 students and lack the political and fundraising muscle of the state's large four-year universities.
Of the two candidates for this North/Northeast Portland seat, Tiffani Penson, who works in the city of Portland's contracting office, brings a stronger skill set. Penson, 49, worked under then-Mayor Sam Adams to help establish a summer jobs program called Youth Connect. In her current role, she helps minority firms land city contracts.
In both roles, Penson says, she's become acutely aware of the role PCC can play in helping young Portlanders fill gaps in their educations and gain valuable vocational training. If elected, she says, her top priority would be to help the college expand public-private partnerships both as a way to match PCC coursework with employers' needs and to add additional financial resources to the perennially cash-strapped institution.
Penson has served on the Lincoln High School site council, the board of Kairos PDX, a charter school, and other boards. Her work experience and civic engagement outshine the modest résumé of her opponent, Leo Kendall, a recent PCC grad who is now finishing his undergraduate degree at Portland State University. Kendall, 22, would make maintaining affordability his top priority if elected. That's a worthy goal, and we hope he'll stay engaged in the political process.
Penson's best school lunch experience: Penson attended Catlin Gabel, the westside prep school, and remembers lunch there fondly. "They had an awesome bowl of chili," she says.
The two candidates for this seat, incumbent Michael Sonnleitner and educational consultant Jason Young, both bring relevant experience to the race.
Sonnleitner, 69, taught political science at PCC for 27 years, retiring in 2015, when he won election to the board. In addition to having spent his career on campus, he has been active in Portland neighborhood politics, serving on the Montavilla Neighborhood Association board and the board for Southeast Uplift. His political acumen and activism would be of continued value to an institution that gets half its general fund from the Oregon Legislature and regularly goes to the ballot for bonds.
Young, 47, works for a company that advises colleges on affordability and student retention. Those are important issues in the context of crushing student loan debt and PCC's enrollment, which has declined as the economy has strengthened.
If re-elected, Sonnleitner says he would focus on advocating for a larger slice of the state's educational funding for community colleges. Young would focus on replacing PCC's systems for tracking students, which he says are outdated and unhelpful.
But Young lacks Sonnleitner's deep knowledge of PCC and his community ties—which are evidenced by Sonnleitner's strong slate of endorsements from the lawmakers who control PCC's budget—and he didn't offer sufficient reason to ditch the incumbent. We'll give the nod to Sonnleitner.
Sonnleitner's best school lunch experience: A strict vegetarian, Sonnleitner for years got big helpings for small prices at PCC's Sylvania campus. "The salad bar was priced by the plate, not by the pound," he says.
Multnomah Education Service District
Position 6, at-large
Plenty of voters find their eyes glazing over when they reach the part of the ballot that contains the Multnomah Education Service District. What does this thing even do? Answer: It uses an $84 million annual budget to provide eight school districts (including Portland Public Schools) with tech and special education services, Outdoor School, and school nurses. For several years, this obscure government body was dysfunctional, but it steadied course recently.
Kristin Cornuelle deserves some credit for that. An intellectual property lawyer who moved to Portland seven years ago from the San Francisco Bay Area, she dove into advocacy for special-needs students and coached a little basketball. She ran for the MESD board in 2017, lost to Helen Ying despite winning our endorsement, then brushed herself off and gained an appointment to another seat on the board. She's been tackling a wish list for Portland-area school principals—starting with staff break-room improvements and working up from there.
Her opponent, Shira Newman, is the mother of two kids—one in a charter school, one homeschooled—who she says were failed by local school districts. Her zest for improving alternative education is worth hearing, but she didn't make the case that she'd be an improvement over Cornuelle.
Cornuelle's best school lunch experience: "I remember being really excited by chocolate milk in schools—which I'm now trying to get out of the schools. My son had the same reaction: 'Where have you been all my life, chocolate milk?'"