Upset about Portland's deteriorating district, group seeks new leadership
A group of former Portland school board members and other community leaders, dissatisfied with the performance of the school board, is quietly recruiting a slate of candidates who could make up a new majority of the board.
The group is working to recruit four candidates to run for the four board seats up for election on May 20 Ñ setting up opposition for at least two board members, Marc Abrams and Sue Hagmeier, who plan to run or are leaning toward running for re-election.
The group also plans to field candidates for the board seats of board Chairwoman Karla Wenzel, who is leaning against running for re-election, and board member Debbie Menashe, who said she doesn't plan to run again. The school board has seven unpaid members.
'Frankly, we're looking for some candidates like the school board used to have Ñ people who work well on a board, people with life experience, contacts in the community and a citywide vision,' said Stephen Kafoury, a Portland lobbyist, ex-legislator and former school board member.
Kafoury said members of his group have been dismayed by the board's performance in recent years Ñ from the granting of large contract buyouts to unsatisfactory district administrators, to the public squabbles between Abrams and board member Derry Jackson, to the board's inability to land a district superintendent after a $100,000 search last year.
'We need to have a school board that the community and the Legislature respects,' Kafoury said. 'We have to pull ourselves out of this situation. We can't let the best school district in the United States slip down the tube. And that's in danger of happening right now.'
Sources close to the group said Ron Saxton, former school board member and recent Republican candidate for governor; former interim Superintendent Diana Snowden, wife of former Gov. Neil Goldschmidt; and former Superintendent Matthew Prophet also are part of the group working to recruit candidates.
'The people who are in this group know a lot of folks,' Kafoury said, 'and, surprisingly, we have some very good candidates Ñ people who are saying they're willing to run.' Kafoury would not name any of the possible candidates.
The filing deadline to run for school board seats is March 20.
Abrams and Hagmeier disputed that current board members don't work well together and said that many of the district's challenges are the result of continual cuts in state funding.
Abrams, who is running for re-election, said he would be disappointed if Kafoury and the group are recruiting a candidate to run against him, although he noted that Kafoury recruited retired school counselor Carolyn Sheldon to run against him four years ago. 'Steve likes keeping his hand in,' Abrams said. 'That's his right.'
Hagmeier, who said she's leaning toward running again, said she believes that Kafoury wants board members who represent 'a narrow slice of the community. I have a visceral reaction to his 'lions of industry' approach. I realize many people feel that's the real Portland. But I would disagree with that.'
Wenzel, whom Kafoury also helped recruit to run four years ago, also disagreed with Kafoury's criticisms. But she said she was happy that Kafoury and others were working to recruit good candidates.
'I think it's great that he's rallying people,' she said. 'Part of what the board needs is credibility in a community, and if he can get people, (who) because of their life experience and experience in the community, can have that credibility Ñ great.'
The board has encountered increasing criticism, especially during the last two years. Parents, teachers and community leaders lambasted former Superintendent Ben Canada's job performance and criticized the board for its oversight of him.
Critics also blasted the board for approving more than $500,000 in contract buyouts for a a short-term former deputy superintendent and then for Canada. And they criticized the board for its superintendent search last year Ñ when five finalists seemed interested in the job but then one after another withdrew from consideration.
All of this has brought increased attention to the next school board races, observers said.
'In the six years I've been in this job, I've never seen such a heightened and intense concern around the governing and leadership issues surrounding the school board,' said Cynthia Guyer, head of the Portland Schools Foundation, a nonprofit group that raises private money to help the district.