Far more students are graduating from Portland Public Schools than 10 years ago. Several major school renovations are about to start construction, thanks to a $482 million bond issue approved by voters. And a majority of the current PPS board thinks Superintendent Carole Smith is just dandy.
All's good with Portland schools, right?
Not so fast.
Behind all the district's happy talk are serious problems—overcrowded classrooms, muddled budget priorities, sour relationships with teachers—and most of them lead straight back to the School Board.
The current board has for too long let Smith, now in her eighth year, do her thing with no questions asked. A majority of the members were so pleased with her that they handed Smith a 28 percent pay raise last summer—a tone-deaf move.
Portland Public Schools is in need of reinvention. You have the power to make that happen. All you have to do is vote.
Four of the board's seven seats are up for grabs in the May 19 election. This year's candidates hold distinctly different views on how PPS is doing—and some are clearly advocating major change.
Three of the races are contested, but only one has an incumbent fighting to hang on. (For the fourth seat, schools activist Mike Rosen—an outspoken critic of Smith's tenure—is running unopposed.)
We sat down with the candidates to hear their ideas and press them on what they think the district needs. What follows are our endorsements in those races.
These School Board gigs are tough. Board members are volunteers, and their hours and hours of work more often earn them hate mail than Facebook fans.
But the job also requires more skepticism and courage than many of the current members have been willing to show in recent years. We didn't make the candidates' views on Smith a litmus test. But we did arch our eyebrows at a few candidates who see no problem with the superintendent and the board that has embraced her. We also want to see a racially diverse PPS board.
also talked to candidates seeking contested seats on the boards
overseeing Portland Community College, the Multnomah Education Service
District and the Parkrose School District.
Here are our picks.
PORTLAND PUBLIC SCHOOLS
ZONE 1, SOUTHWEST AND PART OF SOUTHEAST PORTLAND
JULIE ESPARZA BROWN
Julie Esparza Brown, 57, would bring deep experience as an educator to the board. An assistant professor of special education, Brown also once led PSU's program to train bilingual teachers. Before that, she was a classroom teacher and bilingual school psychologist. "I've devoted my life to education," she says.
Andrew Davidson, 19, is smart, charming and focused. The Grant High grad sat on the School Board as its student representative for the 2013-14 school year. We admire his gumption and think his analysis of the district under Smith is right on—he says the School Board needs to do a better job managing Smith to get results. He simply lacks enough real-life experience to serve on the board as a voting member.
Brown has that
experience—and more. We're skeptical of her statements that the PPS
board and Smith are doing more things right than wrong. But Brown
strikes us as levelheaded, warm and sincere in her desire to do right by
ZONE 2, INNER NORTH AND NORTHEAST PORTLAND
Voters have four candidates to choose from in this race, but only two are credible: Paul Anthony and José González.
González, founder and executive director of Miracle Theatre Group, offers a compelling personal history. Raised by a single mother in Texas before moving to Oregon in 1967, González says he sought refuge in school, including Benson High, where he graduated in 1970. His theater, also known as Milagro, is a Portland gem.
His praise of Smith and the current board strikes us as naive. Much of that probably comes from the fact that González, 63, has had little direct engagement with Portland Public Schools recently. (As of our interview, he'd only attended one board meeting.) The way he tells it, González was practically dragged into the race by people who side with the current regime.
González is simply unprepared to grapple with the complicated issues PPS faces. We asked him about the advantages of middle schools versus K-8 schools, for example. "I really don't have an opinion on that," he says.
Our pick is Anthony, a chief financial officer for a business valuation company and a longtime parent activist with a burning desire to improve career and technical education.
That's not just talk. Anthony, 47, has volunteered to help create a proposed after-hours dental clinic at Benson, where his oldest child is a sophomore.
Anthony, who has regularly attended board meetings, is the candidate with the best grasp of the district's challenges. "I know what the issues are," he says, "for the children who are in schools now."
Alone among the candidates in this race, Anthony stands out for his willingness to critique Smith's leadership and her poor track record of pulling off major undertakings, such as the upcoming redrawing of attendance boundaries for neighborhood schools to balance enrollment and promote equity.
"I don't think Carole Smith has had a good board to work with, and that has inhibited progress," Anthony says.
Also in the race are John Sweeney, a perennial candidate, and Emma Russac Williams, a new mom who helps run Metro's cemeteries. Williams provided one of the best moments in our whole endorsement process, letting us know she'd actually sold a burial plot at Lone Fir to González a few years ago. She strikes us as motivated and caring—but she just doesn't know enough about the issues to make her a serious candidate.
ZONE 3, NORTHWEST PORTLAND
This was a difficult choice. Kohnstamm, 49, has served on the boards of Mercy Corps NW, Open Meadow Alternative Schools and All Hands Raised (formerly the Portland Schools Foundation). Kohnstamm—who married into the family that runs Timberline Lodge—offers sharp critiques of the board and of Regan, who has made service to PPS her full-time job since first winning a seat in 2003.
Kohnstamm's harshest words concern the district's decision in 2011 to save $4 million by moving high schools from seven periods to eight periods. Theoretically, the decision allowed the same number of teachers to teach more classes, preserving smaller class sizes.
But the switch was a disaster for high-school students who wanted to take eight classes per term. The district instead pushed them into 90-minute study halls, late starts and early releases, leading critics to rightly call the results âpart-time high school.â
Kohnstamm was among a group of parents who complained to PPS at the outset and got nowhere. The district addressed the problem only after Kohnstamm and other parents took it to the Oregon Department of Education. The state ordered PPS to restore class time.
"It is unnecessarily difficult to get common-sense resolutions to problems," Kohnstamm says of the district.
She makes a strong case that Regan should have done more to address the problem sooner. "What she did was nothing," Kohnstamm argues.
We'd normally go with the outsider calling for reform. But Regan brings an incumbent's experience (plus the baggage) along with the promise of true change.
We see the problem with the four-member bloc on the School Board—Pam Knowles, Ruth Adkins, Greg Belisle and Matt Morton—that lets Smith dither.
Regan, 57, has often been part of that soft-touch majority, but she says she's learned tough lessons about trusting PPS too much. On the high-schools question, for example, Regan says Smith assured her the eight-period schedule would work great.
Now sheâs appropriately skeptical of Smithâs claims. âWe need to have a much more critically thinking board,â she says.
And Regan is the one candidate in these contested races who is willing to go as far as to suggest it may be time for Smith to go. "It may be that's where we land," she says.
There are plenty of other reasons to go with Regan, whose experience will help tether a board that will see at least three new members. (Adkins, Belisle and Morton all declined to run again.)
Regan of late has asked clear, concise and critical questions about Smith's spending decisions, including the recent move to give top administrators big raises. She's a great foil to Steve Buel, a board member who often shoots from the hip.
Also running is Gretchen Hollands, a PPS employee who shows great courage by entering the race. If she wins, she'll have to quit her job in the facilities department. Hollands is smart, energetic and down to earth. She's an advocate of greater transparency (she'd like to see the district publish departmental budgets) and more cost savings. She says she'd like to look into reducing employee health care benefits—surprising given that she's married to a Grant High teacher. "I'm wondering if they could get by on a Prius instead of a Cadillac,â she says.
Wes Soderback, a perennial candidate, also appears on the ballot.
(A voice recorder malfunction left the first 2:21 of the interview mute.)
PORTLAND COMMUNITY COLLEGE
ZONE 3, SOUTHEAST AND NORTHEAST PORTLAND
It may also be at a crossroads.
President Jeremy Brown, who took over PCC less than two years ago, appears to be on his way out, having recently applied for a community-college gig in Arkansas. The new board may have a presidential search on its hands.
Here's what this particular race comes down to: Do you want a numbers guy? A poli-sci professor? Or someone who can't seem to answer a question?
We're going with the numbers guy. That's Wilton, chief financial officer for the Energy Trust of Oregon, who was appointed to the PCC board in 2014 after a six-year stint as CFO at Clackamas Community College.
Wilton, 57, brings additional educational experience to the board, having served as director of administrative services at David Douglas School District from 1998 to 2007.
In his short time on the PCC board, Wilton has shown himself responsive to students, delaying then modifying a proposed fee increase for international students, who were justifiably angry. He's an affable introvert who clearly believes in the mission of community colleges to "change lives and save lives," he says.
Michael Sonnleitner, 65, the political-science professor, offers an attractive alternative.
Sonnleitner has served at PCC for 27 years as a full-time faculty member, and he's troubled by the college's overreliance on adjunct professors. But he also rails against tuition hikes, which would increase under any scenario involving additional full-time positions.
Anita Yap, a manager of water quality programs at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, may be the most unimpressive candidate we've seen this election. That's remarkable given she has more endorsements from elected officials than anyone in this race. We're not impressed.
MULTNOMAH EDUCATION SERVICE DISTRICT
POSITION 6, AT LARGE
STEPHEN MARC BEAUDOIN
But the $72 million-a-year agency—which operates largely below the public radar—desperately needs to build public trust.
In March, the MESD board ousted its superintendent of three years after the leaders of dissatisfied school districts threatened to pull their contracts.
MESD has also been battered by the recent drip, drip, drip of revelations about an employee, 2014 Oregon Teacher of the Year Brett Bigham. Bigham says he was fired after claiming discrimination based on sexual orientation. The district says he was fired for too many absences. (It has since rehired him, pending a final decision.)
It's been an embarrassing mess for MESD, a sign the place needs people who can provide real leadership.
Incumbent Doug Montgomery is seeking a second term. A retired Bonneville Power Administration management analyst, he also once served on the Northwest Regional Education Service District.
We supported Montgomery when he ran four years ago. Since then, he has earned a reputation as a bit of a crank, which he displayed during our endorsement interview, insisting, for example, that his opponents address him as "Dr. Montgomery." (Montgomery holds a Ph.D. in economics and political science.)
Montgomery also complained that one of his opponents, 35-year-old Stephen Marc Beaudoin, wasn't a true Portlander. His proof? Beaudoin, who's lived in Oregon for nine years, maintains a cellphone number with a Boston area code. Silly stuff.
We're going with Beaudoin, executive director of PHAME Academy, an arts nonprofit for people with developmental disabilities. (Full disclosure: Beaudoin wrote about the arts as a freelancer for WW in 2006 and 2007.)
Beaudoin says he would have responded sooner to complaints from local districts about MESD's former superintendent. Now he wants to repair the district's frayed relationships, promote equity and find innovative ways to better serve MESD's students, many of whom receive special education services.
Well-spoken and warm, Beaudoin makes a persuasive case that heâs the guy who can do all three. âMESD has to evolve,â he says.
Montgomery, in contrast, says one of his top priorities is to strengthen the district's relationship with the Oregon Department of Education. That's not the kind of change MESD needs.
Also in the race is Colby Clipston, the unpaid director of a group promoting a constitutional amendment to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision. He moved to Multnomah County only three months ago. Smart and articulate, Clipston needs more experience to be a serious candidate.
POSITION 7, ZONE 3, SOUTHWEST PORTLAND AND INNER SOUTHEAST PORTLAND
"I'd like to bring the classroom perspective to the board," she says.
Her opponent is
78-year-old Kay Bridges, a repeat candidate who describes herself as a
Facebook consultant. She videoed herself during our interview, mugging
for her cellphone while speaking unconvincingly about her qualifications
for office. We're unfriending her.
PARKROSE SCHOOL DISTRICT
The Parkrose School District in Northeast Portland—with 3,300 students, 189 teachers and a $30 million general-fund budget—doesn't get a lot of attention.
But it's got a lot going on, including a brand-new middle school built with a 2011 bond issue that passed by just six votes—yes, six!—and a technology initiative that put iPad minis in the hands of all students last year.
Carter, a produce journeyman at WinCo Foods, and Joshua Singleton, a Boeing manager, are Parkrose dads who share many views about the district's direction.
They both think it's time for Superintendent Karen Fischer Gray to move on. They doubt the benefit of giving students iPads. They want to restore lost school days, and they also say the district should increase the number of foreign languages and electives it offers.
"I have a kindergartner," says Carter, 46, "and I'd like to see more attention to enrichments."
They differ mostly in their experience. After losing a 2013 bid for the board against Mary Lu Baetkey, Carter committed himself to other volunteer work, including with the district's bond oversight committee and its budget advisory committee.
Singleton, 44, though competent and likable, has no such experience working with the board.
In this race, experience wins.