Two candidates tap local experience in race for SE zone post

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Portland Public Schools board candidate Tom Koehler is the father of three PPS students, a former Corvallis city councilor and an opponent of an enrollment cap at Benson High School.Serving on the Portland School Board is an unpaid, endlessly time-consuming, often emotionally tolling and thankless job.

Yet two serious candidates are vying for the open Zone 6 seat in the May 21 election.

Both are Mt. Tabor residents and neighbors of the current Zone 6 board member, Trudy Sargent, whose four-year term expires June 30. Sargent will step down after serving two terms.

Two other board seats are also up, but no one has filed to challenge incumbents Martin Gonzalez and Pam Knowles. The filing deadline is March 21.

In the open seat, both candidates are parents at Cleveland High School and whose children attended Atkinson’s Spanish immersion program and Hosford Middle School.

Both candidates want to bring a fresh perspective to the board, which more often than not votes unanimously on matters big and small.

Both bring community organizing experience to the table; both know the issues and have even taken critical looks at the work the board is doing.

On Monday evening, for example, candidate Tom Koehler put on his hat as PPS parent and testified at the School Board in support of lifting the enrollment cap at Benson Polytechnic High School.

For the second year in a row, the district’s enrollment and transfer office is limiting the number of students Benson may admit, despite its popularity.

For this fall, there are 425 freshmen applying for 250 slots at Benson and another 16 sophomores applying for 20 slots, according to Principal Carol Campbell.

Koehler, a father of three who runs his own renewable fuels consulting firm, joined a group of Benson alumni and industry leaders to denounce the enrollment cap.

“(Career-technical education) allows students to see a clear pathway to living-wage employment after high school and can turn students on to the possibilities of a two- or four-year college education in a specific field,” he told the board. “If we are serious about equity, we need to be serious about CTE.”

He and the others acknowledged the board’s efforts to try to boost the comprehensive high schools that are under-enrolled — namely Roosevelt, Madison and Jefferson.

“While I understand past decisions and the need for enrollment balancing in order to create strong neighborhood schools as well as choice programs, I am uncomfortable with stifling success and ignoring demand,” Koehler said.

The board did not take any action on Benson’s enrollment Monday night because there was no formal proposal before it. District staff could bring the issue to the board in the future.

Robb Cowie, a PPS spokesman, says there are no immediate plans to discuss changes to the enrollment and transfer policy. But the situation at Benson is “not fixed in stone,” and the role of CTE at the school and districtwide may be reexamined as high school enrollment picks up and as resources become available.

Consuelo SaragozaThe other candidate running for the Zone 6 school board seat, Consuelo Saragoza, feels similarly about the cap on Benson’s enrollment.

“(The cap) needs to be looked at; I think we’re missing an opportunity,” Saragoza told the Tribune in an interview before her campaign announced via Facebook that her father passed away, and she had to leave town to be with her family.

Saragoza, a senior adviser of Public Health & Community Initiatives for the Multnomah County Health Department, says she’s well aware of the delicate balance between school choice and neighborhood schools.

She’s been following the board’s efforts to boost enrollment at Jefferson, where a large chunk of Benson students transfer from.

“I think there will have to be hard decisions made,” Saragoza says. “We have two incredible programs we should capitalize on.”

Importance of education

For Saragoza, running for the board isn’t a new idea: someone approached her with the idea eight years ago, she says, but she felt her daughter was too young for her to make such a time commitment.

Now Saragoza says she’s ready to put in the time, and wants to push the envelope on the district’s equity discussions.

“Using my public health hat, I try to look at the root cause of problems,” she says.

Born and raised in a small town in Nevada, she says her family was one of a dozen or so Mexican-American families. “My parents didn’t have any education, but knew the importance of education,” she says.

While growing up, Saragoza says she was told by people in her community such things as, “You’ll never make it in college.” At one time, she says, “I thought I couldn’t be a teacher because I wasn’t white.”

Saragoza went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in education and Spanish from Southern Oregon University, and a masters of public administration from the City College of New York.

For most of her career, she has held management positions: she began as a teacher in Ashland, then directed a program for migrant and English Language Learners.

She ran an alternative learning center in Woodburn for students at risk of dropping out of school and joined the Portland group now called Impact Northwest to supervise work with Native American and Latino students.

Since 2000, Saragoza has been a director at the county; she’s also been program director and executive director of the Oregon Council for Hispanic Advancement.

In 2010, she was appointed to a four-year seat on the TriMet board, but since her school board campaign began she’s taken a leave of absence from the board.

Saragoza has secured endorsements from Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek, former Multnomah County Commissioners Serena Cruz Walsh and Maria Rojo de Steffey, as well as six of the Portland School Board members.

Board member Bobbie Regan is endorsing both Saragoza and Koehler; Sargent, the retiring board member, says she likes both candidates but hasn’t yet decided whom to endorse.

Catalyst for change

Koehler, for his part, has secured a line-up of big-hitters in Portland’s circle of influence including endorsements from congressman Earl Blumenauer, Rep. Jules Bailey, Sen. Jackie Dingfelder, Gretchen Kafoury, Eileen Brady, Tom Walsh, Nancy Hamilton, Jefferson Smith, Liz Kaufman and others.

He’s built connections with many of those leaders from his past work.

Born and raised in Portland, the last of six boys, he attended Catholic school and earned a degree in economics from Oregon State University. He served a two-year term on the Corvallis City Council, starting at age 24, while he was in school.

In Koehler’s early career he worked as a community organizer in Nicaragua for the national grassroots group Neighbor to Neighbor, then on Gretchen Kafoury’s first City Council campaign and as transportation outreach coordinator for Blumenauer.

Koehler wants parents and teachers to be at the forefront of reform. To see gains in the graduation rate and closing the achievement gap, he wants to make sure the district invests wisely and focuses on key priorities like having top-notch principals in every building.

Koehler also wants to build a culture of innovation. For example, he cites an online resource called the Kahn Academy, which offers free learning technology that teachers could use to “differentiate” their lessons to their students’ wide range of abilities.

Koehler, who fashions himself as a “catalyst for change,” says he began having discussions with people about a year ago about the future of the school system.

Those talks morphed into a run for the board seat when it became open. He has a son and daughter at Cleveland; his older daughter graduated from Cleveland last year and is at the University of Oregon.

Besides the Benson enrollment cap, both candidates have a slightly different take on another recent board matter.

Koehler isn’t satisfied with the Jefferson cluster enrollment balancing process that resulted in the merger of Chief Joseph and Ockley Green schools.

“In hindsight, it was not well done,” he says. “The process stirred up the whole community, and all that controversy didn’t have to happen.”

Saragoza, however, saw the dialogue as an improvement on past public processes. “I would hope it’s a beginning the district will take seriously, to make sure people are coming to the table before, not after,” she says.

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