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Jefferson decision needs more time

Our Opinion

The immense work that has gone into the redesign of Portland's high schools could be for naught if the School Board loses the public's trust by racing toward a final decision too quickly.

The board, in what appears to the public to be an abrupt last-minute change of direction, has moved in the past week to remove an entire high school - most likely Jefferson - from what was supposed to be an eight-school model system for the future.

This latest direction, supported by a 5-2 majority of board members as of Wednesday morning, is coming too fast and too late in the process to be credible for parents, students, teachers and citizens who've been asked to participate in months of process and discussions.

It is also coming much too rapidly for a Jefferson community that would be left without a nearby neighborhood high school and without an adequate opportunity to understand why. Without Jefferson, students in the neighborhood would have to travel as far as 8 1/2 miles away to the next closest high school.

Community needs to weigh in

We should state up front that we aren't opposed to considering the idea of closing Jefferson if such a move assuredly would increase the chances of bringing greater educational equity and success to all of Portland's high school students. However, Portland is supposed to be a community committed to proper process, and the prospect of closing Jefferson High School has yet to be fully vetted.

School Board members, most notably Co-Chairwoman Trudy Sargent, argue that the Jefferson decision is not, in fact, an 11th-hour change - that it's been under discussion for months. But even if that's accurate, it's not sufficient that the School Board is comfortable with closing Jefferson as a comprehensive high school. The community as a whole - not just the North/Northeast Portland community - must reach a level of comfort as well. That comfort cannot be achieved in a week or two.

Jefferson is a school with a rich history. In recent decades, it has been of special importance to the city's African-American community, as a majority of its students were black. But for a school that's been around for more than 100 years, this isn't an issue of black and white - it's a matter of honoring the heritage and the educational achievements of a Portland institution and taking time to consider the impact of closing this particular school.

It's a matter of treating the community with common courtesy after first proposing to invest heavily in Jefferson to make it a successful, comprehensive high school - and then dashing such hopes in an instant.

Take issues one at a time

We understand that the School Board wants to put the final wrapping on a redesign process that's only getting messier by the day. And we realize that the school district is under pressure to provide certainty to parents, students and staff members who need to know what high school options will be in place at the start of the 2011-12 school year.

However, it is not only possible - but necessary - for the board to slow down long enough to listen to the community about this matter. Certainly, the fate of Jefferson will affect the scope of the redesign plan, but not all aspects of the plan have to be decided at once. School board members ought to move ahead with those parts of the redesign proposal that are independent of the Jefferson issue and then set a time certain - no later than three months into the future - to come to a final conclusion on whether Jefferson will be a revitalized comprehensive high school, an arts-magnet school or something else entirely.