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Mayor's race runs through schools

Candidates pledge help, but Portland isn't Minneapolis
by:  Mayoral candidates Jefferson Smith (center) is a product of Portland Public Schools; Eileen Brady and Charlie Hales (right) sent their kids through PPS. But who'll be the best education mayor for the city? A Thursday evening forum focused on education will help flesh it out.

When it comes to boosting graduation rates and closing the achievement gap in public schools, one city's initiative is quickly becoming known as a national model of success -- and it's not Portland's.

Since 2003, a sweeping plan known as the "Minneapolis Promise" -- which includes career counseling, summer jobs and scholarships for all graduates -- is credited for much of that city's rise in high school graduation rates from 53 percent to 78 percent, and college enrollment from 48 percent to 63 percent.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, a former journalist and community and political activist now in his third term, presented the initiative to 16 of his fellow U.S. mayors in February at a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation event called "The Mayors in Education Convening."

The mayors had been recognized as national leaders for their innovative approaches to boosting college and career readiness. The West Coast contingent included Tacoma, Wash., Seattle, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Calif., and Malibu, Calif. Portland was absent, despite the recent creation of a schools' "cradle to career" network similar to the one in Minneapolis.

No matter that the mayor of Portland has no formal oversight or control of public education, the three leading mayoral candidates in the May 15 primary election all say they'd play a major role in schools.

But how?

Beyond buzzwords like "partnerships," "equity" and "advocacy," the candidates have publicly revealed few specifics about their thoughts on some of the city's most polarizing education issues, since education typically takes a backseat.

Until now.

Thursday evening, the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods and Concordia University will co-host a candidates forum on education, with Eileen Brady, Charlie Hales and Jefferson Smith set to attend, along with City Council candidates Amanda Fritz, Mary Nolan, Steve Novick, Teressa Raiford, Mark White and Jeri Williams.

Candidates will respond to community members' questions about issues facing pre-K through higher education, likely starting with the most pressing issue: school funding.

Portland Public Schools faces a $27.5 million general fund shortfall. Superintendent Carole Smith told the school board Monday night that she'll use the district's budget reserves to absorb a third of the shortfall, another third could come from central office staff and resources, and the final third from the schools -- which likely means larger class sizes and/or reduced programs.

Smith will recommend budget changes to the board April 2.

The moderator for Thursday's forum will be Keith Thomajan, the new chief executive officer of United Way of the Columbia-Willamette.

Successful programs

While many citizens believe Portland must elect a candidate who can live up to the title of "education mayor," local school activists are not settled on any one candidate's credentials over another.

Lincoln parent and architect Stuart Emmons invokes Minneapolis' Rybak as an example of what an education mayor can do.

"A committed mayor could have a large positive impact on our school system," Emmons says, noting that he'd "hope a mayor would work with PPS, higher ed, our business community, community organizations and faith organizations to at least halve the dropout rate in his/her first term."

That's no small task, considering the latest four-year PPS graduation rate is 59 percent (which does not mean the dropout rate is the inverse, since some finished up at alternative schools, in other districts or received their GED, which are not counted).

Says Emmons: "This should be a commitment, it is attainable and will help countless of our most at-risk youth get on a good life track, and there should be a plan behind it based on successful programs in other cities."

Funding shifts for schools

Emmons isn't the only one to think so.

Hales, in fact, wants to replicate the Minneapolis Promise.

Calling Rybak his friend, Hales says in his Portland Association of Teachers endorsement questionnaire that he'll "go out to the business and foundation communities and raise money for an expanded program that will send every qualifying child to college. This Portland Promise will raise graduation rates and keep strong students in our public schools, increasing the stability of our school system."

Brady and Hales have their own keystone education initiatives. Brady would look for greater partnerships with the Schools Uniting Neighborhood system.

Smith would improve summertime programming offered by Portland Parks and Recreation to tackle the achievement gap that grows when school lets out.

Both Hales and Brady say they would personally call upon the city's businesses to partner with the schools.

Hales, Brady and Smith all say they'd work to support a PPS construction bond measure on a future ballot, would have worked to save the Marshall Campus from closure and would use their position as mayor to carve more education funding from the state.

When it comes to carving sources of long-term education funding, the candidates come at it from different angles. Hales calls for "systematic reforms" in the way the state funds education, and for education to be funded first, before anything else, in the budget.

Smith points to the five bills he's introduced in the Legislature to limit some of the $31 billion the state forgoes each biennium to tax credits, deductions and exemptions.

Brady wants to suspend the state's surplus tax "kicker" rebates until they're tied to revenue levels that meet the state's quality education model. She'd work in Salem and Washington, D.C., for more funding, and she wants to "craft a politically viable strategy to overturn and/or correct the devastating impacts yielded by Measures 5 and 50."

The teachers' association political action committee endorsed Smith, after reviewing the questionnaires, follow-ups and interviews.

City takeover?

Whoever is elected Portland mayor must contend not just with school funding and the volatile politics of school reform, but also with the district's most vocal critics and watchdog groups.

The loudest at the moment is a small but well-connected group of parents who banded together to speak out against the PPS November bond measure, calling themselves "Learn Now, Build Later."

One of the group's leaders, Laurelhurst parent Lainie Block-Wilker, has lobbied elected officials since the narrow defeat to "build a better bond" by heeding her five-point plan for the schools.

Among the items she's calling for: closing small schools, including Jefferson High; calling for an independent audit of PPS to find efficiencies; and bringing PPS under the purview of city oversight through legislative amendment.

None of the candidates has expressed an interest in a city takeover of the schools, but Block-Wilker will keep trying.

"Until a strong mayor and our civic and business leaders step forward to intervene," she says, "I fear that PPS will continue to run this district into the ground by putting its politics before the education and safety of our students."

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