Freed from more school budget cuts, district can focus on learning

Like the three other Portlanders elected with him to the Portland school board, Doug Morgan has definite ideas on leading the state's largest school district.

Foremost among them: He wants the board to actually lead the school district.

'Whatever it does, it's got to do it as if it were in charge of something,' said Morgan, who heads the Executive Leadership Institute at Portland State University and was elected to the Southwest Portland board seat.

'I don't want to criticize the previous board,' he said, 'but the perception was É it was in a reactive mode, responding to external forces and never quite ahead of the curve. Whatever we do, we have to do it in a position of taking charge.'

The four newly elected board members all exuded take-charge attitudes this week as they basked in the glow not only of their victories but also of Multnomah County voters' decision to give the Portland school district more than $50 million a year in county income tax money. The money will continue for the next three years.

The new tax seemed to change the entire atmosphere around the Portland school district this week. It appears likely that the new board, which takes over in July, will not be forced to repeatedly cut district budgets as the current board has had to do at least not for the next three years.

'I feel a renewed sense of energy,' said Dilafruz Williams, a Portland State University education professor who was elected to the Southeast Portland board seat. 'I really feel this is a new beginning. The voters have come together and they have made a statement that we care deeply about our schools and our children. É I think that we can't let go of this opportunity.'

But, as Morgan put it, 'I think it's terribly important for the board to pick a few centrally important things and make sure they exert leadership with respect to those few issues.'

Here are the three issues that new board members talked about most in interviews this week.

• Student achievement and narrowing the gap in learning between poor and minority children and more well-off white students

'The significance of the ballot measure for me is that it provides some sense of medium-term stability that will allow us to focus more of our energy and attention on student achievement,' said bank executive David Wynde, who was elected to the inner Southeast/inner Northeast Portland board seat. 'I think this board will focus more deeply and more clearly on improving achievement for all kids in all schools in the city.'

Current board member Lolenzo Poe, whose term expires in 2005, said improving achievement for poor and minority children remains the district's most pressing issue.

'I think we absolutely have to get back to the issue of closing the (achievement) gap,' Poe said. 'And laying out accountability measures, and (deciding) what we do with schools that don't achieve the desired outcome.'

• Dealing with the rising costs of district-provided health insurance for teachers

During negotiations this spring on a new teachers contract, school board leaders and district negotiators wanted the teachers union to agree that the district could cap how much it would pay for teachers' health insurance premiums. The final settlement did not include such a cap to the dismay of business leaders and other district budget-watchers.

The settlement did set up a special committee to study health insurance costs along with Portland teachers' salaries, which have fallen behind the average salaries of other regional school districts. The committee is scheduled to make a recommendation in October.

'I think there is some expectation that those discussions É will produce something that enables the district as a whole to have greater control over health care costs,' Wynde said.

• Relations between district management and its employees unions

The overwhelming vote to strike that Portland teachers made shortly before they settled their contract this spring underlines what's been true for years: Relations between district management and its employees' unions especially the teachers union are abysmal.

And that can cause many problems beyond potential strikes.

'At the most fundamental level, when you have disaffection by a major partner to the educational process when one of those partners is disaffected in a profound and fundamental way it leads to all kinds of problems that don't necessarily surface in a clear way,' Morgan said.

Each of the newly elected board members said those relations need to be improved quickly.

'I think we absolutely have to do whatever we can to try to shore up a more positive relationship between the two,' said parent activist Bobbie Regan, who was elected to the Northwest Portland board seat. Regan said she intends to meet with union leaders regularly, something she believes that current board members haven't done.

'I think we have to break down some barriers and start talking to each other,' she said.

Morgan said board, district and union leaders should look at different ways that other large and complex organizations have used to improve relations between labor and management.

'There are plenty of models that we can draw on that are different,' he said. 'I would want the board to commit itself, along with the union, to say we want a different life together.'

Contact Todd Murphy at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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