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OR: Parents power Portland schools' rebound

Summary: Financial difficulties, due to a drop in student enrollment, were forcing this district to take drastic measures to make ends meet. Couple that with an ineffective and stale board and the district was headed for disaster. But when parents got involved, launching a group called Help Out Public Education (HOPE), things began to turn around. With a new board—and time—things are looking up. Parents are once again opting to send their children to Portland's public schools and achievement on standardized tests is improving at most grade levels. Although the district still faces financial challenges, fewer cuts were made than originally anticipated and the board is working hard to partner with the community to revamp its high schools and boost civic engagement.

 


In 2003, the financial situation for local schools in Portland, Oregon, was so bleak—including a proposal to lop 25 days off the school year to make

District characteristics
Name: Portland SD
State: OR
Type: Urban
Grades:  K–6
Enrollment: 44,169
Students per teacher: 18.8

Enrollment characteristics
Economically disadvantaged: n.a.
English language learners: 12.7%
Students with disabilities: 12.7%
White: 60.7%
Black: 15.8%
Hispanic: 10.9%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 10.2%

American Indian/Alaska Native: 2.1%

Other: n.a.
Source: SchoolMatters.com
ends meet—that Portland was spoofed nationally in Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury cartoon strip.

But when parents joined forces on behalf of public schools in the greater Portland area, it was no joke. From an original group of 16, thousands eventually acted, securing more money for schools and inspiring new candidates to represent their perspective on the Portland Board of Education.

Since 1991, Portland’s state funding had been shrinking due to passage of a property-tax limitation measure. At same time, several other sources of funding had also dried up. Student enrollment was dropping as housing became too expensive for young families. The superintendent was bought out of his contract in 2001, followed by an unsuccessful search for a replacement. And a fractious school board seemed unable to lead the school system out of crisis. “There was no coherent vision,” says parent Tripp Somerville. Julia Brim-Edwards, a former school board member, says the board at that time was not focused. "Time was often spent on personal agendas.”

Looking for fresh funding options, 16 parents gathered one night and launched a group called HOPE (Help Out Public Education). They mobilized thousands of parents to lobby—successfully—for a county income tax to benefit eight school districts in the greater Portland area.

One of the leaders was Bobbie Regan, who had been a PTA president and member of school improvement groups. As Regan and her family were driving south for spring break in March 2003, her cell phone rang. The school board member in her zone had unexpectedly dropped out of the race. It was the last filing day. Was Regan interested?

“I spent the entire spring break on the phone, running up a huge phone bill,” she recalls. Facing five opponents, Regan launched a grassroots campaign, spent $60,000 (then a local record), and won by a couple thousand votes.

Three other new board members, all with a reform agenda and a focus on student achievement, were also elected in 2003. Says Somerville, communication director of the Portland Schools Foundation (PSF), “We discovered that leadership mattered and made a conscious, deliberate effort to recruit people with a collective vision.” PSF convened candidate forums to ratchet up interest. The Portland chapter of Stand for Children helped candidates who didn’t have much public political experience.

The next two years marked a fundamental change in the way the board worked—transforming them into a team that focused on student achievement, financial accountability, and community outreach. Board members committed to visiting every school in the district at least once, conducted the first school board-student roundtable, and began revamping high schools to become small learning communities.

Brim-Edwards, credited by several as an influential force in making the transition, and colleague Lolenzo Poe became co-chairs. Brim-Edwards says one change that led to a stronger board was, “the board retaking control of its own meetings and agenda, instead of letting staff decide. If staff wanted to present on a topic that wasn’t related to our priorities, then we said that would have to come after 10 p.m. We wanted to send a clear message to the community about what was important.”

Communication among board members was just as important as communication with the community. In 2004, during the superintendent recruitment, Brim-Edwards and Poe spent hours each day touching base with their colleagues, most of them new to the board. The board met with 70 community groups to hear what they wanted in a new superintendent. Then, working with a non-traditional recruiting firm, the board brought in a new superintendent, Vicki Phillips, who had a successful track record in school reform.

Once Phillips was in place, board members worked hard at making sure they respected the superintendent’s day-to-day management responsibilities, while the board focused on overall policy direction. “She’s the instructional leader,” says Brim-Edwards, “and the board’s role is evolving back to where it should be.”

“There used to be personal animosity among board members that was playing out publicly,” says parent Otto Schell, a state PTA vice-president. “Now the board is much better, and we have a superintendent broadly supported by the community.”

The 2005 elections brought more new board members, but despite the new blood and a strong superintendent, there was no fairy tale ending for the money crisis. Today as co-chair of the board, Regan says the school system “is looking at a perfect storm in funding.”

Enrollment has dropped to about 47,000 (each child lost represents about $5,000 in state funding), while the district holds classes in schools built years ago for 70,000 students. Already the board closed five schools in the last year—never a popular move—and slightly increased class size. While the board has reined in the costs of generous employee health benefits, other costs remain high (60 percent of teachers fall into the highest pay scale due to seniority).

Board members are all unpaid volunteers. In their other lives they range from university professor to banker, with a mix of political leanings. Yet on the board, says Regan, “We’re respectful when there are differing opinions.” That helps, because while trying to maintain their focus on student achievement, the funding problems remain a grueling distraction.

In early 2006, the School Board was wrestling with a $57 million shortfall for the coming year. The Board hoped for a local-option property tax that would raise $33 million, but a citizen survey in February brought sobering news: Don’t try that anytime soon—it’s likely to fail.

“We were surprised at the negative,” says board member Trudy Sargent, who was elected in 2005. “The economy is still recovering and people are feeling that they are still not getting ahead.” Adds Regan, “They’re just exhausted by temporary fixes.”

The board may still go out to voters in November for the local-option property tax, but first there’s more work to do. Board members are talking positively about what they are trying to accomplish, and trying to do “a better job of getting out to the 80 percent with no kids in school,” says Regan, such as meeting businesspeople downtown for luncheon meetings.

There are allies, groups like PTAs, Community and Parents for Public Schools (CPPS), Stand for Children, and PSF, who has been a key partner with business and the School Board in passing local funding measures and galvanizing stakeholders around the new board’s results-oriented agenda. And individuals like Nancy Hamilton, who was a leader in the HOPE advocacy group three years ago, and is now mayor Tom Potter’s chief of staff. Potter has tried to get changes at the state level, suggested regional solutions, and a city-wide income tax.

Along with the allies are some critics—parents who fear cuts will be directed at their neighborhood schools. Critics say that magnet specialty schools are never the target of budget trims, and in bus stop conversations and online blogs, they criticize the board for moving too fast.

All spring, weary board members trundled to round after round of meetings with community partners, businesspeople, politicians. Some days seemed dimmer than others, like the one when somebody leaked a school system draft of suggested cuts to the Oregonian , Portland’s largest newspaper. The whole board hadn’t yet discussed the list (including school consolidations and a K–8 structure), and the abrupt unveiling provoked citizen dismay and a heated town hall meeting.

On up days, the board has much to be proud of: More than 85 percent of Portland parents with school age children are choosing to put them in public schools. Achievement on standardized tests is improving at most grade levels. After months of worrying about funding, the board and superintendent prepared to cover a $57 million shortfall with a combination of support from the city, county, state, and local businesses; fewer cuts than anticipated; and $12 million from reserves. And the district just partnered with PSF to win a $9 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for revamping secondary schools and boosting civic engagement.

The reinvigorated board (no member is serving now who was elected before 2003) and Portland Public Schools are at a crossroads, some observers say. Parent Ruth Rocker, whose school was one of those recently proposed for closing, says, “PPS is on a precipice. It hasn’t failed yet—it could—but it also could be this fabulous urban school system.

“My optimism is riding on strong local leaders,” she says, crediting the superintendent and board members for reaching out to seek parents’ opinions. “If that’s a genuine invitation, if people believe they’re part of that deliberative process, then the sky’s the limit,” she says. “It’s affirming to me, that I’m in the right city, in the right school system. That’s what gives me hope.”

Lessons learned
  • Maintain a focused agenda on student achievement, accountability, and community involvement by spending the board’s time precisely on those goals.
  • Use each board member’s varied experience and skills. Deliberately find ways to use the talents of each to make the board a stronger whole.
  • Set clear expectations for what productive community involvement will look like. The work of board-appointed citizen committees should align with the board’s priorities.
  • Be transparent in budgeting and reporting to the community.
  • Engage in frequent, substantive communication from the board to key stakeholders; use everything from e-mail updates to participation in community meetings and school celebrations.
  • Ongoing professional development for board members pays off in a stronger board. Take advantage of multiple options because different approaches sometimes work better for different members.

Contact

Portland Public Schools
Public Information Department
501 North Dixon Street
Portland, OR 97227-1804
Phone: (503) 916-3304
pubinfo@pps.k12.or.us

Bobbie Regan
School Board Co-Chair
Phone: (503) 292-0659
bobbie.regan@pps.k12.or.us


Posted: May 5, 2006

©2006 Center for Public Education

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