Saxtons school switch turns heads
- Jennifer Anderson
- Portland Tribune - News
Address change raises fairness, access questions
Republican gubernatorial hopeful Ron Saxton used the address of his Southeast Portland home to run for his seat on the Portland school board 10 years ago while at the same time using a downtown residential address to enroll his son at Lincoln High School in Southwest Portland.
Saxton and his wife, Lynne, wanted to enroll their son at Lincoln's competitive International Baccalaureate program - the only one in Portland at the time - for the 1996-97 school year. But when they tried to transfer their son, Andy, into the program, he was turned away because Lincoln was overcrowded.
In response, the family decided to move from its Mount Tabor home to an apartment on the South Park Blocks for a year to establish residency there, so Andy could enroll at Lincoln as a neighborhood student.
It was perfectly legal as long as it was their primary residence for a year, according to the school district's policy.
The family moved back to its Mount Tabor home at the end of Andy's freshman year, in the summer of 1997 - shortly after Saxton was first elected to the school board by the district where the family's permanent home is located.
Andy continued attending Lincoln by commuting across town in following years. He graduated in 2000 with an IB diploma, went to college and works as an engineer.
Now, as the Republican nominee for Oregon governor, Saxton has said public-school students should be allowed to attend any school, regardless of where they live, whether it's across town or in another district.
'Erase the boundaries,' he told the Portland Tribune last month. 'Just break down the wall.'
See related story, 'Saxton pushes for open enrollment', 8/22/06
By moving his family so that his son could attend a certain school 10 years ago, Saxton essentially has become a poster child for his own platform. While nearly everyone has a story of a family they know that tried to work the system to get into a certain school, the issue is especially critical at Lincoln, which is constantly overcrowded.
But even former Lincoln Principal Peter Hamilton was surprised to hear this week about the Saxtons' move.
'While technically speaking, that may comply with district policy, it certainly raises questions about appropriate use of the transfer process and residency,' said Hamilton, who became principal in 2000, after Saxton's son graduated.
'It's a legal loophole … it wasn't meant for people to rent an apartment and establish residency, knowing they have a home across town to move back to,' he said.
Others said they resent the fact that someone stressing equity in education had used the system to his advantage. The issue is particularly heated today, in the midst of concerns about the gap between rich schools and poor schools, and the search for balance between school choice and neighborhood schools.
'It's another sad display of the fact that people with resources can use the system to their advantage and privilege their children in a way that average folks can't,' said Russ Dondero, a political science professor of 31 years at Pacific University and currently an adjunct professor at Portland State University, who said he has not decided whom to support for governor.
'Most parents want the best for their kids,' he said. 'But they can't afford the best. So they have to do the best with what their options are.'
Saxton said he sought advice
When asked on two separate occasions to comment on the specifics of his situation, Saxton deferred to his wife, Lynne, and his campaign manager, Felix Schein.
Lynne Saxton explained that moving out of their 3,000-square-foot home into a cramped two-bedroom apartment in 1996 was a sacrifice they made because they believe all students should have access to the education they want, regardless of where they live.
She said they were open and transparent about living there. Ron, a business and energy attorney at a high-powered law firm, and Lynne, then working as a marketing director, held dinner parties at the apartment and furnished it with garage-sale furniture, she said. They let a family friend, a graduate student at the time, live in their Mount Tabor home rent-free in exchange for house-sitting services.
Said Schein: 'They're well-aware for the potential for this to look fishy and curious, but Ron went to great lengths to make sure this was aboveboard. His livelihood depends on him doing things according to the law. Not doing that would've put a rapidly expanding business in great jeopardy.'
It raises the question: Can a person have two legal addresses of residency at the same time, one for the purpose of school enrollment and one for candidacy?
As long as the address used for enrollment is the student's primary residence, it was a perfectly legal move to rent the apartment and live there for a year, according to the school district.
But Saxton's run for school board raises a more complex issue: the definition of residency.
According to the school district's policy, board candidates must 'be a registered voter and resident of the respective zone to which they seek nomination or appointment.'
According to Vicki Irvin, director of the Multnomah County Elections Office at the time, the office matches the candidates' voter registration address with the one on their form to see if it matches. If it matches, and the address is within the geographic zone for which the person is running, no further checks are done.
Saxton signed his name on his candidacy form in December 1996 for the March 1997 election, using his Southeast Portland address. He had not switched it when he temporarily moved.
Citizens don't necessarily have to change their voter registration address when they move as long as they intend to return, which allows people in the military, away on business or splitting time between homes a chance to register for the place they consider their residence, Irvin said.
'Registration must be at your residence, but your residence is a matter of your intent,' said Irvin, who served as elections director from 1984 to 2002.
As to Saxton's situation, she said, 'What we look at is if it's legal. If it doesn't present a problem, we have no reason not to put him on the ballot. Whether people think it's right is a whole other question and doesn't enter into the question of whether we should put him on the ballot.'
Saxton ran unopposed in the election from Zone 6, outer Southeast Portland. He was elected in March 1997, became board chairman in 1998 and served in that post for two years.
He ended his term on the board in 2001 to take his first run for governor. In 1996 he had co-founded the Portland Schools Foundation, and still serves as founding board president.
Dondero, the political science professor, said Saxton went to great lengths as a parent to fulfill his responsibilities. 'But as a candidate running from your home address while you're living at another address, to me, frankly, is hypocritical,' he said.
Schein said Saxton had sought advice on his residency situation from the secretary of state's office before the election.
No one at the secretary of state's office could confirm that the issue was reviewed at the time. But Schein said Saxton not only cleared it legally, he went to the editorial boards at the major newspapers at the time, and 'asked them to examine the situation and determine if there was a problem, and there wasn't. They never ran a story, and it never warranted one.'
Level playing field's elusive
Minority education activist Martín González doesn't see any problem with using the system to seek the best educational option for a child. But he thinks Saxton's renting an apartment made a statement about inequity between the haves and have-nots.
'The fact that he's from a background of privilege, he's able to do that,' said González, who recently founded a group called Portland Schools Alliance, which aims to boost parental involvement in schools.
'I don't think that the rest of the folks are able to do that. The whole thing about school choice is supposed to be about leveling the playing field and providing parents a chance to get the best education for their kids. But economically, that's still a challenge.'
By coincidence, González's daughter graduated from Lincoln around the same time as Andy Saxton. She successfully transferred to Lincoln from the Jefferson High School area and commuted to the school every day by taking the city bus or getting dropped off.
Yet González said that minority parents generally feel at a disadvantage when it comes to navigating the system. It's even more complicated now, since 2003, when Portland instituted its districtwide transfer lottery policy, which allows students to transfer to any school they wish as long as there are spots available.
The computerized process gives students at schools that don't meet federal standards priority in the process.
As far as Saxton's action goes, González said, 'It's unfortunate the parents we work with don't have the same access and insight,' he said. 'He's kind of like the inside trader.'
Ron Herndon, director of the Albina Head Start program and a longtime activist for equality in education, dealt with Saxton on school-related issues and also thinks his step was not appropriate as a school leader. 'Is that what you call a carpetbagger?' he quipped. 'An educational carpetbagger?'
Cleveland program founded
The Saxtons realize their situation raises one of inequities between schools. That's why, they said, they worked hard to make the IB program accessible to families in other parts of town so they could have a fair shot of getting in as well.
It happened in 1998, when Saxton was chairman of the school board. The board had recommended opening a second IB program, on the east side of town.
Even though the Saxtons' neighborhood school in Southeast is Franklin High School, they didn't base the program there because the school wasn't interested, Lynne Saxton said.
Bruce Plato, who was principal of Southeast Portland's Cleveland High School at the time, wanted his school to be the site. So he visited IB programs in other districts and rallied the Cleveland staff and community, winning the school board's approval.
'We were losing quite a few neighborhood students to Lincoln with IB, and to private schools,' said Plato, now principal at Lake Oswego High School. 'I thought it was important we keep our neighborhood kids going to the neighborhood school. Lincoln was the only school in Portland with an IB program at the time and was turning people away.'
Lynne Saxton said she wrote a $50,000 seed grant to start the IB program at Cleveland, and is proud to claim that as one of her achievements in education today.
'What we've got to do is have the educational services that kids need to realize the futures they have,' she said. 'They don't currently have that. It doesn't matter whether you can rent an apartment or sell their home or if they're in foster care. Any of these kids should be able to get the education they need. I'm sure the school district is doing their best, but they simply can't do it. … The goal should be in all schools, there's a range of programs that meet the needs of children.'
Activists express dismay
Most of the people who were contacted by the Portland Tribune this week were surprised to hear about what the Saxtons did. More than a dozen teachers, administrators and parents who were part of the Lincoln community or district leadership were unaware of the circumstances. A handful had known about the Saxtons' apartment.
'It was all aboveboard with them,' said Kathryn Fitch, who coordinated Lincoln's IB program while Andy Saxton was there. 'They were never secretive about it. I always felt like they were upright citizens. I can understand questions about fairness and access, but it's a complicated issue.'
Even though Saxton says he wasn't hiding anything, he's apparently never raised the issue during a school board meeting, stump speech or other public venue. He also failed to mention the family's move during an Aug. 17 interview with the Tribune about education issues.
When asked how his son got into Lincoln, he replied: 'Everybody who applied got in. I mean there weren't that many people applying to the IB program. It was really rigorous and hard.'
'There was never enough room,' said Leslie Butterfield, the IB administrator for the past seven years. The IB student must meet a certain number of community service and extracurricular hours, do a college-level research project and pass exams in six subjects.
Students may choose either to take part-time IB courses or meet all of the requirements to receive an IB diploma; a quarter of those who choose the IB diploma in each class typically fall short, Fitch said.
As the Southwest Portland neighborhoods became more dense and more families moved in to send their kids to Lincoln, overcrowding was getting to be a serious issue, insiders say. The school brought in portable classrooms and instituted a lottery system; students who met all of the academic requirements still were turned away.
With so much competition, parents said they frequently heard of families trying to work the system to enroll their child at Lincoln.
'Nobody blinked an eye when that happened,' said Marianne Fitzgerald, co-chairwoman of the Local School Advisory Committee at Lincoln in the 1990s. 'This is just a nonissue.'
It wasn't just happening at Lincoln.
Lew Frederick, a candidate for Multnomah County commissioner and former public information officer for the school district from 1993 to 2005, said he constantly ran into cases of people trying to work around or bend the district's rules over the years, including several public officials.
'People were being very strategic about placing their kid in a program without dealing with the space issues,' he said. 'That was the culture of the time. They try to justify it simply - 'I'm going to get the best education I can for my kid.' Some parents will do anything for their kid.'
The school district relies on school staff to pass on potentially fraudulent cases, but when the tips come in, few are caught because the district simply doesn't have the resources to knock on every door, officials say. Those who are caught are sent back to their neighborhood schools.
'At the time, it was hard for kids to get into schools they wanted to go to,' Lynne Saxton said. 'A lot of parents were looking for shortcuts. We didn't use those.'
To view documents related to this article, click the links below.
Ron Saxton's 1996 school board candidacy filing
Saxton listing in Lincoln High School 1996-97 directory
Saxton listing in Lincoln High School 1998-99 directory
Nick Budnick contributed to this story.