Portland school board debate turns on public input
Challengers say district needs more transparency
When voters fill in their ballots for the Portland school board race in the May 15 special election, they'll see two names they might recognize and two they might not.
Doug Morgan and David Wynde are the incumbents, four-year members of the board who helped recruit Superintendent Vicki Phillips to Portland 2 1/2 years ago and signed off on many of her actions that have created controversy in the community. They've helped close and reconfigure schools, reform the Jefferson Campus, and adopt a core curriculum, a process still under way.
The incumbents say that despite some criticism, the public generally supports these initiatives, along with Phillips' work to raise student achievement, improve labor relations with teachers and craft a stable budget with support from voters.
'A lot of people think, and I agree with them, that things are moving in the right direction,' Wynde said he's discovered along the campaign trail. 'Most like what she's done.'
Ruth Adkins and Michele Schultz don't paint such a rosy picture. As the challengers trying to unseat these fairly solid board members, they're tapping into the community dissent that's surrounded many of the processes Wynde and Morgan were involved in.
'It's kind of a sense of being willing to trust the public early enough on in the process,' said Adkins, who is challenging Morgan in Zone 1, which mostly covers Southwest Portland.
For example, she said, in the K-8 reconfiguration, she wished Phillips would have approached the public a few months earlier with the concept, presenting the pros and cons and forming a vision together, 'rather than coming out with a Power Point proposal that is pretty well fleshed out for people to react against, because that sets us up into this … situation where the public's only option is to push back against something that's been pretty well formed.'
At stake in this school board election are a range of major issues the board will tackle in the next four years, including how to keep families in the city and and their kids in public schools, asking voters for a capital bond measure to pay for new buildings, and keeping tabs on the progress of the reforms at the district's struggling high schools.
Wynde and Morgan say they've gained a deep understanding of these issues over their four years of service that will enable them to continue forging partnerships in the community. And as far as communication goes, they say the district's public process now is vastly improved from four years ago.
'In my view we've been very engaged,' Morgan said. 'I think there's a higher degree of involvement on the part of the community, whether the parents, business community, neighborhood associations, there's a lot more engagement, and it's been cultivated systematically.'
Can there be more? 'You can never have too much engagement,' he said, noting that more community buy-in results in collaborations such as the new Rosa Parks School and the sale of the old Washington Monroe High School, which both Wynde and Morgan helped to lead on the finance committee.
A call for transparency
Adkins and Schultz appreciate the work that's been done but say the district must act in a more transparent and community-based way, because teachers and parents are tired of hearing different rationales for initiatives such as closing schools.
'I'd like to see the board develop a stronger checks and balances relationship with the superintendent,' said Schultz, a social worker and Winterhaven School parent who was inspired to run for office during the school's recent conversations with the board.
'As a group you continue to work together, you develop your patterns and way of working and it's probably safe to say you have a tendency to be a little more closed,' she said. 'What we need now from the board is a fresh perspective and new energy and a willingness to really hear respectfully and with a very open mind.'
In the Jefferson redesign process, Adkins said the district should have surveyed parents who live near the Jefferson Campus to get their ideas for improving the school.
And when Phillips assigned the schools in the Sellwood cluster to decide among themselves which building to close, Adkins thought that was an inefficient use of parents' time.
Parents were able to produce enrollment data that allowed them to move a boundary rather than close a building, data the district should have considered in the first place, she said.
Adkins worked on some of these issues as a founding member of the Neighborhood Schools Alliance, a watchdog group that vocalized citizens' frustrations about equity during the school closures and Jefferson redesign process.
She has three children in Portland Public Schools near her Hillsdale home, works as a market research analyst for Campbell DeLong Resources Inc., and has collected a long list of grass-roots supporters - those who are known more for speaking their mind than being part of the local establishment.
They include former City Council candidate Amanda Fritz, retired language arts teacher and activist Linda Christiansen and community activist Martin Gonzalez.
Adkins 'brings in a new perspective to the board from an activist perspective,' said Gonzalez, who also endorsed Wynde in Zone 2, which covers primarily inner Northeast.
'Unfortunately I think the current composition of the board is not geared to be much more of a dialogue and discussion sometimes,' Gonzalez said. 'The board should be asking many more critical questions. There's a number of major changes that come about, yet the people affected by those changes are not being contacted early on. Have they been asked, and to what degree?'
Adkins and Schultz believe that overall Phillips has been a good leader for the district but needs to improve her communication - a concession Phillips made herself during a recent City Club speech.
Grading Vicki Phillips
While they are running on platforms of change, Adkins and Schultz were generous when asked by the Portland Tribune to grade Phillips' leadership. They each gave the superintendent a B-plus.
Wynde and Morgan gave Phillips an A, pleased with her leadership amid a backdrop of financial strain.
'I'm here to help keep the superintendent here, help her do better, give her credit due,' said Morgan, whose day job is director of the Executive Leadership Institute at Portland State University's Mark O. Hatfield School of Government.
Kris Anderson, an Irvington School parent leader, has endorsed both Wynde (whose children attend Irvington) and Morgan. She's also endorsed Bobbie Regan in Zone 3, parts of Southwest and Northwest Portland, who is running unopposed. The fourth candidate up for re-election is Dilafruz Williams in Zone 7, parts of Southeast Portland, also unopposed.
With the unpaid job of school board member requiring so much time without a lot of glory, Anderson said she's been impressed with Morgan and Wynde's ability and willingness to look deep and understand the issues, and consider the big picture without favoritism toward their own neighborhoods.
Yet siding with the status quo doesn't mean she thinks everything's perfect in the district, she said.
'I think things could be executed better,' she said, referring to the pace of the initiatives coming down the pike.
On the other hand, Anderson said: 'I don't think things are being done so badly that heads need to roll. I think that as we get used to the superintendent, her working style, that as a community we can partner better, know when to say 'Whoa' … I think the district needs steering, not a change in direction. I think the board is now in a position to do that guiding.'
To find out more
The school board candidates will square off on the issues at a forum set for 7 p.m. Thursday at the Blanchard Education Service Center, 501 N. Dixon St.