Former board member files for Zone 4 seat in May

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Schools activist and retired teacher Steve Buel hopes to shake things up on the Portland Public Schools Board. Voters can meet the candidates at an April 10 forum at Franklin High School.Steve Buel has an idea for Benson Polytechnic High School.

Like many supporters of career-technical education, he wants to see the school grow — and enroll as many students as it can possibly serve.

But he doesn’t want to pull students from the neighborhood schools, Jefferson High School in particular.

So Buel — a retired teacher, schools activist, former Portland School Board member and PPS watchdog who is challenging incumbent Martin Gonzalez for the Zone 4 school board seat — came up with an idea one night.

What if the district combined Jefferson and Benson into one school, with buses running back and forth between both campuses, he says.

Jefferson would remain connected to Portland Community College with its Advanced Middle College program, he says, and keep its dance and other arts offerings as well.

Benson would keep its rigorous academics and vocational programs.

“It becomes the Portland STEAM School,” Buel says, using the term for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math. “We decide we’re going to have one of the best STEAM schools in the country; we go out and now sell it to the business community.”

The idea is far from fully developed but is something the district should investigate, Buel says.

Soon after jumping in the race, he was endorsed by the Portland Association of Teachers, which he feels legitimizes his campaign.

“I’m no longer a lone wolf crying in the wilderness,” he says. “I think maybe I’ve moved to being an elder statesman, from a radical.”

Bringing bold and innovative ideas to the school board is one of the responsibilities of a board member that is often overlooked, in Buel’s opinion.

“You’re a legislator, elected by the community to go run those schools and make sure they work,” he says. “You have a responsibility to bring intiatives to the board to make things better. ... (Now), no one’s doing that.”

Advocate for funding solutions

Buel, who lives on Hayden Island, served on the Portland School Board from 1979 to 1983 but has been a close follower of district and statewide education issues since then.

Buel was co-author of the 1980 school desegregation plan, which ended forced busing of black students to schools outside their neighborhoods.

He frequently wrote about racism and other topics on the now-defunct watchdog site, PPS Equity. His posts can be viewed at

Buel has been a teacher for 45 years, including 20 years `at a middle school in the Vancouver, Wash., Evergreen School District. He retired two and a half years ago and has been playing a lot of golf and reading a lot, he says.

A few years ago Buel cofounded Oregon Save Our Schools, an advocacy group that’s working in Salem for longterm education funding solutions.

He also ran for the Portland School Board in 2009, losing to Gonzalez, who had just served one year to fill a mid-term vacancy.

Buel came in with 23.7 percent of the vote in that race, PPS watchdog Rita Moore pulled in 24.6 percent and Gonzalez secured the other 50 percent for the victory.

Gonzalez is president of the Latino Network, and ran for the board as an activist.

Looking at Gonzalez’ five years on the school board, Buel doesn’t have any criticism, per se. “It’s the lack of leadership and bringing initiatives and standing out on important projects,” Buel says. “Is it fair to say, ‘What have you brought?’ “

Buel has other ideas that would be considered moving beyond the status quo. He wants to get rid of high-stakes standardized testing; stabilize the district by looking at the effectiveness of K-8 schools and putting a middle school in each high school cluster; and fix the problems at individual schools by looking at the root of the issues, rather than “top-down mandates.”

Forum set for PPS board candidates

Community members will learn more about the candidates for Portland School Board at an April 10 event.

The forum will be co-sponsored by the Franklin High School PTSA and the Cleveland High School PTA, and moderated by Portland City Club Executive Director Sam Adams.

All five candidates have been invited to attend:

Tom Koehler and David Morrison are running for the Zone 6 seat, to be vacated by Trudy Sargent.

Steve Buel is vying to replace Martin Gonzalez in the Zone 4 seat.

Pam Knowles is running for her second term in Zone 5, unopposed.

Questions for the candidates will be solicited from parents, students and community members.

The event is free and the public is encouraged to attend.

It’s set for 7 p.m. April 10 in the gym at Franklin High School, 5405 S.E. Woodward St.

Cleveland PTA President Paula Mims Dion points out that four years ago, only 15 percent of voters participated in the School Board election.

“School Board elections are the community’s opportunity to help shape the policies and vision of our local public schools,” she says.

“It’s important that voters take the time to learn where the candidates stand, and then remember to return their ballots.”

Roger Kirchner, co-president of the Franklin PTSA, adds that the board is responsible for overseeing the $482 million PPS voter-approved bond measure.

School Board members represent geographic zones but are elected district-wide. Ballots will be mailed on May 3 and must be returned by 8 p.m. May 21.

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