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School board set for a face-lift

Four incumbent members tire of flak, decide it's time to flee

Two years of controversy and criticism surrounding the Portland school board ended rather unceremoniously last month - or at least one chapter of it did - when all four board members whose terms are about to end decided not to run for re-election.

Each talked about spending more time with family.

Still, the collective decisions seemed to make a larger statement as well - about community frustration with the board and about the board members' own frustrations with trying to lead a challenged school district in an increasingly tempestuous environment.

'I expected hostility and cynicism,' said school board chairwoman Karla Wenzel, who will leave the board in June after one four-year term. 'But the degree of hostility and cynicism surprised me. And it grew. It's far worse now than it was three years ago.'

Like Wenzel, school board member Debbie Menashe is leaving after one term on the board; board members Marc Abrams and Sue Hagmeier are leaving after two terms.

'I think when you've gone through eight years of holding your finger in a dike fiscally, with everyone telling you they want you to make the hard decisions but not really meaning it - or meaning they want you to make the hard decisions on somebody else … it gets very tough to be subjected constantly to negativity,' said Abrams, who filed to run for a third term but then withdrew his candidacy March 20, the day of the filing deadline.

'Even though you're doing great work for kids. And I think we did do great work for kids,' he said.

It's not clear how the four incumbents might have fared if any had sought re-election.

Wenzel, who indicated months ago she was leaning against running again, said she believes both she and Menashe would have won re-election easily. Some board watchers believe that Hagmeier and Abrams would have had tougher times winning third terms. Abrams pulled out of the race as the Portland teachers' union was getting set to endorse county executive John Ball for Abrams' seat.

Abrams had the teachers' union support in his past races.

Abrams said that when Ball entered the race, 'it became clear there was going to be a significant election contest,' and that pushed him into deciding to spend more time with his family.

Portland lobbyist Stephen Kafoury, a former school board member, is part of a group that tried to recruit candidates - including Ball - to challenge incumbent board members. Kafoury said his group worked to recruit the candidates because 'for whatever reason, I think the community has lost confidence in the board. I think there's a widespread perception that the board has not been doing what the public felt it ought to be doing.'

The best way for the district to move in a better direction was 'to have new board members,' Kafoury said.

Criticism of the school board has been significant during the last two years. Critics have focused on how the board supervised former superintendent Ben Canada, its failure to land a superintendent last year to replace Canada and how the board has set other district policies.

But departing board members, and others, said much of the criticism has been unfair - and largely borne of frustration the community has with continual district budget cuts forced by shrinking state revenues.

Wenzel said the board's current structure - an elected local board dealing with a budget largely determined by the state - doesn't work.

'I think the expectations of the public of what you do, what the job is, what you can do, doesn't meet the realities and that causes a lot of frustration,' Wenzel said.

Stagnant or decreasing revenues for the district - due in part to a 13-year-old property tax limitation measure and declining state revenues - hamstrings what the school board can accomplish on many issues, she said.

'We live with the fiction that we have a local board and we have local control,' Wenzel said. 'We don't have local control. We gave that up ages ago. We gave that up with Ballot Measure 5.'

Said Menashe: 'It's a frustrating position to be in when you control very little in terms of resources and you have extraordinary responsibility with respect to decision making about policies, which are often driven by resources.'

Scott Bailey, a Portland Public Schools parent and president of the nonprofit Community and Parents for Public Schools, said some criticism of the board is fair - including its decision to hire Canada and its decisions to give Canada and other top executives large buyouts of their employment contracts.

But he also said the continual budget cuts have made it 'an incredibly tough time to be a board member. For anybody, it would have been a brutal time to be on a board.'

Some also see hope in the fact that 23 candidates have filed for the four board seats. And that whoever wins will not be saddled with the baggage - fair or not - of the old school board.

'There's a honeymoon period,' Wenzel said. 'The community will see that as a new board, and not responsible for whatever misgivings the public had about the current board. And the public may allow themselves to be a little bit optimistic.

'And … I think that will be really good.'

Contact Todd Murphy at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .