Right now, most of the action at Portland Public Schools is centered on the protracted negotiations over the teachers' contract. That impasse is drowning out other issues, such as the simmering dispute over the future of Benson Polytechnic High.

The district's 2011 high school redesign capped enrollment at Benson, whose focus on technical and vocational education has long made it a magnet for ambitious minority students.

The purpose of that cap was to redirect students back to Jefferson High School, which has seen its enrollment fall to 510 students, about one-third of the enrollment of the district's thriving high schools.

This morning at 8:53 am, Lainie Block Wilker, an education activist and supporter of removing the cap on Benson's enrollment, sent out a widely-distributed email encouraging community leaders to lobby PPS Superintendent Carole Smith to raise the cap (a decade ago, Benson served 1,500 students and it was built to hold 2,000) and to join a tour of the school on Jan. 27 (emphasis added).

"Benson Tech has capacity to serve 2000 students, yet enrollment has been artificially capped at only 875 to keep kids at lesser performing schools without marketable job skills or built-in BOLI approved apprenticeships.  If you care about economic equity, join us," Wilker wrote.

Today, Tom Koehler, who along with Steve Buel joined the board last summer, replied to that same email list with a response that signals there will be robust discussion of Benson's cap in the future (emphasis added).

"I want Benson to be the BEST CTE [career technical education] school in the nation," Koehler wrote in an email at 11:44 am today.  "We are not going to get there by imposing caps on its enrollment.  Staff has proposed raising the caps for incoming freshman next year. While this is progress it does not go far enough.  The fear is that a successful Benson will take away enrollment from Madison, Jefferson and Roosevelt - therefor lets cap Benson.   I believe that is a formula for planned mediocrity.  We can address enrollment drops in other schools by looking at a more regional coordinated approach to our high schools. We can have a thriving Benson and give every other student a great education as well in our school system."