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Board focuses on kids, not turf

TWO viewS • School board representation tops the agenda at next week's meeting. With increased pressure from the Rainbow Coalition, should the board go to zone voting?

Some things are better the second time around. Others aren't. A proposal to elect Portland school board members from zones is not.

In 1992, the Portland Rainbow Coalition argued that the current school board system Ñ members live in a specified zone but run districtwide for a board position Ñ inhibited minority representation.

Members of the 1992 school board rejected the idea. They carefully drew zones to ensure board diversity. They wanted a board that was able to work together, where each member represented all of our students, all of our schools.

It worked. In 17 elections since 1992, 30 percent of board seats have been won by ethnic minorities, 41 percent by women and 18 percent by religious minorities.

The public has been served by activists, writers, public employees, engineers. Even lawyers. We have come from every corner of the city. From every social and economic strata. We average 25 hours per week volunteering for our community's children.

As we redistrict, the Rainbow Coalition again asks to remedy a system that is not broken. The Portland Public Schools board is perhaps the most diverse governing body in Oregon. So now they argue that it is too expensive to run. They argue we are economically nondiverse. I'm not about to turn over my fellow board members' 1040s, but that's simply not true. There are no barriers to running for this board except time and desire. Certainly not income.

City Council races may now cost candidates about $300,000. Not so school board races. Only four candidates ever have spent more than $20,000 to reach the district's 400,000 citizens. That's a nickel a person. My opponent for re-election in 1999 spent $47,000. I was outspent 2-to-1. I won. Money isn't everything. Nor is name recognition. Not one of us was widely known before running for the board. Most of us were little-known neighborhood activists or school activists.

Most school board races involve spending $5,000 to $10,000. My first race cost $5,500. In six of 17 races since 1992, only a single, unopposed candidate filed. The issue isn't money. The issue is finding people willing to put in long unpaid hours with inadequate resources to work for school improvement.

Zones won't cut campaign costs. The state Legislature is elected from zones. House races average more than $100,000. Senate seats are $250,000 affairs. Shoe leather may somewhat offset money. But maybe money will swamp shoe leather with wave after wave of mail. Wealthier candidates won't necessarily spend any less in a zone.

Zones detract from bringing the school district together. Zones encourage parochial behavior and decrease board effectiveness. Board members don't currently focus on 'their' part of town. We answer to the entire community for our decisions.

Zoned representatives don't make better decisions. They make decisions governed by the self-interest of smaller constituencies. Look at Salem. Look at the 'ward politics' practiced in many larger cities' school districts. Zone politics pit area against area, interest group against interest group.

An e-mail that Jamie Partridge sent out stated that 'activists on the board representing certain neighborhoods and a certain group of schools would fight for those neighborhoods, to defend those schools against closure and cuts to staff and programs.' That's not how we build one community.

What matters is, every board member cares about every child and works to improve education and eliminate the achievement gap. Not how members are elected. Portland school boards have been hardworking, knowledgeable and not bound by the demands of narrow special-interest groups. The Rainbow Coalition's proposal risks changing that. Why would we go there?

Districtwide voting is in the public interest. Voting by zones is not. The system is working. Why change it?

Marc Abrams, an attorney, has served on the Portland school board since 1995 and is chairman of the board's Legal Committee studying redistricting. He lives in Northwest Portland.