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Our Opinion: Shake things up; elect Buel to School Board

Imagine you’re in that cell phone service TV commercial and the guy at the end of the table asks: What’s better for the Portland School Board, status quo or shakin’ things up?

Raise your hand and say, “Shakin’ things up.”

That’s what voters should do on their May 21 ballots by electing Steve Buel to the School Board’s Zone 4 seat. It’s a decision that could change not just the board, but also the approach the board takes to vexing issues.

Buel, 68, served on the Portland School Board during the tumultuous late 1970s and early ’80s, when the district wrestled with desegregation and adequate funding for all sorts of programs, including special education. Buel, who left the board in 1983, helped write the district’s desegregation policy and guide it through a political fight.

A teacher for 40 years in Portland and Clark County, Wash., Buel saw firsthand issues that stymie professional growth and our children’s education. Buel also is a co-founder of the group Oregon Save Our Schools, which is fighting for equity in education and adequate funding.

Buel ran for North Portland's Zone 4 seat in 2009, but lost to Gonzalez. He’s back for a rematch. This time, he has money and organization from the Portland Association of Teachers (the group gave him $12,000 after it endorsed him last month).

Gonzalez, 56, manager of TriMet’s multicultural programs, has focused on equity issues, advocating for improving English language learner programs. He is former executive director of the Portland Schools Alliance who has been active in efforts to improve schools.

During the past five years, Gonzalez (who was originally appointed to the seat) has set aside his activism in favor of cooperation and working “more effectively” with board colleagues. At times that working relationship resembles a bland porridge, leading to communication stumbles on high school redesign, school closures, enrollment boundary changes, TAG and ESL programs, and a proposed bond measure.

It also leads to static group-think that doesn’t serve our schools well. When asked his views on a specific (and controversial) issue, Gonzalez told the Tribune editorial board that he didn’t want to comment until checking with other board members. That wasn’t something an independent thinking activist would say.

Gonzalez has often been a minority voice against decisions to cap Benson Tech enrollment, close the Marshall Campus, close Humbolt Elementary and the Young Women's Academy. He hasn't demonstrated an ability to sway other board members to his cause.

To his credit, Gonzalez avoids what he sees as “magical” solutions to pressing problems — like an enrollment cap at Benson. He "deals in reality" on many tough problems.

Gonzalez is the board’s only Latino member. He’s an advocate and an example for that fast-growing community, which presents a dilemma for us in endorsing his opponent. While we want a board that's more representative of the entire community, we're not sure that's being accomplished now.

We doubt that Buel would indulge in board group-think. He can be long-winded and circular in his arguments, but he has a down-to-earth view of what ails schools, and what can fix them.

Buel says district leaders should spend more time listening at the school level to teachers and taking their concerns and solutions seriously. He also believes we need to fix our middle schools and engage students earlier to keep them from dropping out.

His solutions are based on a simple idea: listen to the public, listen to the teachers and listen to students. He wants district leaders to make decisions based on what board members hear outside, not inside, the boardroom.

Buel supports Superintendent Carole Smith and will likely go along with many of her proposals. He also is a diligent thinker who does his homework on issues and could add enough spice to turn a bland board porridge into a lively gumbo.

On May 21, we urge voters to support Steve Buel and tell the Portland School Board that “shakin’ things up” is better than keeping the status quo.