Portland Public Schools' reversal on Tubman sparks anger
Claire Dennerlein Manson, a mother of two at Martin Luther King Jr K-8 School, said it's not even a close call.
Forced to choose between a school that offers inadequate educational programs for her soon-to-be sixth grader and one that may have yet-to-be-determined environmental hazards, including poor outdoor air quality, Dennerlein Manson said the choice is easy.
She wants her daughter to have full access to the rich course offerings only a middle school can offer in Portland Public Schools, and she wants her child to move from fifth grade at MLK to a middle school with her whole school community intact.
"Both of those to me have higher stakes—and have more immediate, imminent risks—than the air quality," said Dennerlein Manson.
For her, that means she wants her daughter at Tubman Middle School next year. But Portland Public Schools' board of education doesn't see it her way.
In a sudden about-face, board members voted unanimously on Tuesday, Oct. 24 to throw up in the air the school district's two-year-old plan to reopen Tubman in 2018-19 for students like Dennerlein Manson's daughter, owing to what board members called "emerging" concerns about potentially "toxic" conditions at Tubman, a building that until June held students from Faubion K-8 School as Faubion's permanent campus in Northeast Portland underwent reconstruction.
And with that vote, which also delayed until an unspecified date the redrawing of school boundaries to prop up underenrolled schools, the school board plunged the district back into a heated debate about race, class, history and educational opportunity in Portland Public Schools.
If PPS declines to open a middle school next year at Tubman, which sits atop Interstate-5 in the Eliot neighborhood north of the Rose Quarter, the board has said it will temporarily house the Tubman program in another PPS building. The school-board vote was supposed to celebrate the renaissance of Tubman, which the district launched in the 1980s in the heart of Portland's historic black community to better educate black students. But now the board's action could spell the closure of another school in the same community.
Dennerlein Manson said she and other parents from MLK gasped as they watched the board reverse course last month. MLK has the fewest students in grades six through eight of any K-8 school in the district this year, significantly limiting the school's funding for electives and other programs. That's not a new trend. Three years ago, MLK's underenrollment was a driving force behind the district's effort to combine the upper grades at various K-8s to form middle schools.
Dennerlein Manson's family is white. But 40 percent of students at MLK Jr. are black. Thirty percent identify as Latino. And their middle school opportunities now hang in the balance. So do the fates of nearby primary schools, which board members have identified as possible alternative sites for a middle school. That means parents now also fear that MLK — or another underenrolled K-8 in inner Northeast Portland—could be a victim of a district process that was designed to help it.
"It's inconceivable that they would consider our school," said Danise Elijah, a mother to two kids at MLK. "That's the opposite of equity."
Jamila Singleton Munson lost a race for the school board in May, but she still watches the district closely. She said the board's reversal shocked her, in part because it was so quick but also because it disproportionately hurts students of color.
"This is a continuation of racism in our city and in Portland Public Schools," she said.
Rita Moore, who beat Singleton Munson in the May election for a seat on the school board, didn't downplay the upheaval the board's backtracking would create. "This is going to be a wrenching experience," she told a packed audience at the Oct. 24 meeting.
Board members appear to be acting as much on what they don't know as what they do know about the environment at Tubman.
A week after the vote, Portland Public Schools has not posted to its website all of the records of environmental testing at Tubman, as members of the board have requested.
Public records released so far to the Portland Tribune don't definitively say that Tubman's environment poses a health risk to students and staff.
Instead, the records show there are several unanswered questions about Tubman's air quality. (The board also has questions about the school's susceptibility to sliding.)
As part of its vote on Oct. 24, the board committed to testing the school for the possible presence of lead, radon, asbestos, diesel particulates, visible mold and carcinogens. If tests show the school is unsafe, or if takes a long time for the district to conduct the tests, PPS will open Tubman at a different site.
Among the records is a 2011 report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that suggested further monitoring for cadmium, a metal that in high levels can damage people's lungs. Since that study, a nearby glass manufacturer, Uroboros Glass, stopped using cadmium in response to 2016 reports in the Portland Mercury about toxic emissions traced to two glass makers, Uroboros and Bullseye. Records show follow-up testing by PPS in February 2016, after the Mercury broke the news, produced "no detectable levels of either cadmium or arsenic reported for any of the air and soil samples."
Board members also have questions about diesel exhaust. Elected officials brought the freeway to Tubman's back door in the 1960s, when the Tubman building housed what was then Eliot Elementary School.
Before Eliot reopened as Tubman in the mid-1980s, architects designed additions to the school to dampen noise from I-5. But the freeway remained, of course, and traffic has only worsened.
Ron Herndon, a member of the Black United Front who pushed for Tubman's creation, said questions about possible environmental hazards at the school were in the mix for decades until PPS closed the middle school in 2007. The building housed the Young Women's Academy until 2012.
But Herndon told the Tribune last week he was "furious" with the school-board vote because it jeopardized the school's opening. Environmental testing should have happened already, he said. "The school hasn't moved," he told the Tribune. "The environment hasn't changed. Why haven't these issues been raised earlier?"
This week, parents from several K-8 schools in inner-Northeast Portland, including MLK, Sabin, Irvington, Beverly Cleary and Boise-Eliot Humboldt, penned a letter to PPS demanding that the district come up with a viable Plan B by December.
The district faces tremendous skepticisim, though.
PPS planned to reserve 75 seats at Tubman for students whose families have been displaced by gentrification. Some of those students already attend grade schools in inner-Northeast Portland, either through transfers or by giving false addresses. Closing their elementary schools to make room for Tubman would amount to "displacing displaced kids," said Shei'Meka Owens, a parent at MLK. "The right to remain matters more than the right to return."
Tony Hopson, a prominent booster for schools in the Jefferson High School cluster and president of the education nonprofit Self-Enhancement, Inc., said he's not interested in an alternative plan for Tubman. He said he wants the district to quickly test the school and then make the necessary repairs to make sure it's safe.
"I don't think the community is going to sit on the sidelines and watch the district go in a different direction again," he said.
SEI closed its charter school for students in sixth through eighth grade in June on the promise PPS would reopen Tubman. PPS initially planned to do that in time for the 2017-18 school year, but former interim Superintendent Bob McKean pushed back the opening by a year in order to give the district more time to plan programs at the school. Hopson accepted that delay.
"We bought into that and moved forward," he said.
Although members of the school board said they hoped Tubman could open in some form in 2018-19, Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero and his staff said that the testing could delay Tubman's opening until 2019-20.
Guerrero, in a statement Monday, defended the change.
"We understand that the community is eager for their students to return to a comprehensive grade 6-8 middle school, and we share that goal," Guerrero said. "But we have to do it right. I think we can all agree that our students' safety has to be our first consideration."
Dennerlein Manson wouldn't disagree. But she's not interested in foot-dragging. "The time for delay to give these kids a middle school is over," she said.