School candidates take serious approach as troubles loom
The Portland School Board race of 2011 isn't shaping up to be a wild one.
In fact, it's been tame, as more urgent school issues - budget woes, a bond, a levy, a high school redesign and lagging graduation rates, to name a few - have overshadowed the board race in recent months.
In two of the four open board seats, the incumbents - Ruth Adkins and Bobbie Regan - are seeking re-election against candidates who did not appear at one of the latest events, a 'speed dating'-style meet and greet last Sunday organized by Portland Stand for Children.
The question-and-answer session gave voters a chance to get to know their candidates.
But Adkins was left alone in her Zone 1 race, since her opponents, Larry Lawson and Glenn Livingston, didn't show.
The same went for Regan in her race against challengers Martha Perez and Christine Nelson in Zone 3.
All four no-shows have run quiet campaigns and haven't collected enough contributions to warrant formation of a political action committee.
A third open seat, Southeast Portland's Zone 7, isn't a race at all. Candidate Greg Belisle is unopposed, but is leaving nothing to chance; he's collected more than $3,500 in contributions, earned big-name endorsements and is making the rounds at candidate forums and events.
'I think a good school board is essential to having a vibrant, high-performing school district,' says Tyler Whitmire, spokeswoman for Portland Stand for Children.
'I just think we can't pay enough attention to who these candidates are and where they stand on the issues.'
The most hotly contested race, by far, is for Zone 2, representing North Portland and part of Southeast.
Both Matt Morton and Maggie Brister-Mashia are waging serious campaigns that include house parties and mailers. Portland Stand for Children endorsed both candidates.
The nonprofit cites Morton's leadership and budgetary work as deputy director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association and board chairman of the Native American Youth and Family Center, which he's been involved with for eight of his 13 years in Portland.
He's a young father of a 2-year-old son, who lives near Humboldt School and positions himself as a budget guru who wants to engage the public more deeply and hold the district accountable for its fiscal decisions.
'The district has a really big PR problem,' he says. 'It's not the district that needs to get the message out - it's the parents, the teachers, the kids. … How can we engage the community? We need to find authentic ways. … We need to be going to them before the decision is made.'
Brister-Mashia, a Jefferson alumna, has worked as a contractor for the Urban League of Portland and other organizations in North and Northeast Portland for the past 30 years. During the past four years, she's led the Jefferson High School Alumni Association in raising $20,000 for the school during its centennial celebration and another $4,000 for the school's music programs.
She's represented the community during the Jefferson redesign talks and is glad to see the plan for the Middle College program, which her 15-year-old daughter will participate in. Her two eldest children are also Jefferson graduates.
When it comes to moving the board forward, she says her relationships with the schools, neighbors and business communities are a major asset. 'We've got a deficit,' she says, 'and we've got to think outside the box to make schools work.'
While Morton has raised nearly $20,000 so far, Brister-Mashia has raised about $4,000, having put her campaign temporarily on hold after the unexpected death of her mother last month.
A third challenger in the race is John Sweeney, a land management consultant who is opposing the bond and the levy out of concern for people's financial fate.
'It's too much at one time,' he says. He also advocates for condensing the high school experience from four years to three to stave off boredom and save money.
Meanwhile, both Adkins and Regan - the first board member to seek a third term since Carol Turner, who served from 1985 to 1997 - are proud of the initiatives they've set in motion and say they are in the best position to move them forward.
'When I think about where we were in 2003 and where we are today, I think we've made some huge improvements,' Regan says. 'There's so much excitement about what can be, I want to stay and see it through. It's a good sign that you have board members that want to run again.'
Adkins echoes those thoughts, noting the ongoing work in the teacher evaluation system, the English-language-learner programs, and the push for equity.
'Potentially if we do it right, it's going to be transformative,' she says. 'I want to be a part of that.'
Stand for Children has been pushing for change in several district initiatives, such as teacher evaluations and more transparent bargaining. Yet the organization is endorsing both incumbents in the race.
Doesn't that mean more of the same?
Whitmire explains: 'I think it's hard to find people to run for school board because it's a really tough job,' she says. 'It's silly to expect one person to come in and instantly transform the district. I do think in a lot of ways (the board is) moving in the right direction, paying more attention to milestones and the achievement gap. You do, in some cases, have to give people time to see it through.'
Turner, the former school board member who went on to advise Mayor Vera Katz on education issues and now works as a facilitator and mediator in Portland, says there's more value than risk in board members serving more than one term.
'I think the school district's issues are so complex, it really takes a while to understand the issues,' she says. 'There are always challenges to come along. Portlanders wouldn't allow their board to be complacent.'