When Harriet Tubman Middle School in Northeast Portland reopened in 2018, Portland Public Schools spent millions to alleviate air quality concerns from the school’s proximity to Interstate 5.
Three years later, those concerns are getting louder as conversations around expanding I-5 at the Rose Quarter ramp up.
So earlier this year, the board of Portland Public Schools pledged to partner with local and state leaders to “understand the environmental and health impacts of the freeway”. But if state leaders move forward with the freeway expansion, the board wants them to “accept the responsibility for the harm they have caused and mitigate the past and potential future harm to the health of students and staff at Harriet Tubman Middle School.”
In part, that means paying more than $100 million to move Tubman to a “safe, healthy location in Historic Albina.”
In order to appropriate that money to Portland Public, state leaders want to know where Tubman students will go instead. The district has two options: buy a new site for Tubman, or relocate to an existing school, an option that would require renovations — and potential displacement for a school community. But before PPS chooses the latter, some parents and other school constituents want to have their say.
That conversation started last week, during three meetings to talk about the “Future of Harriet Tubman Middle School.” One was virtual, and two were in-person — one at Tubman, another at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, one of four schools that feed into Tubman.
For King parents, including Tiffany Robinson, notice of the meeting raised worries that their campus could be among the options for Tubman’s new location.
“I don’t understand why we’re continuing to be a target,” said Robinson, who is also the PTA president at King. “I don’t know what other schools they have in mind, but I just think that these schools need to be untouched.”
At the time, there were no in-person meetings planned at Sabin, Irvington, or Boise-Eliot/Humbolt, the other three elementary schools that feed into Tubman — a fact King parents noted with concern. District officials have since scheduled meetings at Sabin, Boise-Eliot and Irvington for Jan. 5 and 6. The district has not made any decisions about a possible relocation site.
The district’s message
Last Thursday, lunch tables at King filled up with parents, staff, and a few students, eager to hear the district’s plans. State Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland, who represents the area, and PPS board member Gary Hollands attended, along with a handful of district officials.
Families listened through the board’s overview of the relocation process. The district is considering one city-owned property, as well as district-owned land in the Albina neighborhood. Those seven district properties include King, Sabin Elementary, Irvington Elementary, Boise-Eliot/Humboldt Elementary, Tubman Middle School, Jefferson High School and the district office, on Northeast Broadway.
The district officials at the meeting — chief of staff Jonathan Garcia, chief operating officer Dan Jung and government relations director Courtney Westling — said they’re considering all of the properties. Board member Julia Brim-Edwards, who has been a part of the district team discussing the potential I-5 widening impact with state leaders, said there are “less than three” properties the district is considering.
In response to questions from King principal Teresa Seidel, Jung said the district office building and Jefferson High’s campus are not likely options for Tubman.
Jung also pointed out that the elementary schools are about “60% utilization.” The impact on current school populations is also noted in the district’s draft proposal to the state. “Enrollment forecasts suggest building capacity in the catchment area can support the student population after moving Harriet Tubman to another building in the Albina neighborhood,” according to the proposal.
After the district’s presentation, parents, students and a few staff members took turns at the mic. They asked district leaders pointed questions about equity and the board’s decision-making process. They also urged officials to take King out of the running.
“I love this school, please don’t shut it down,” said one student.
A few parents suggested alternate sites for Tubman, some on PPS grounds and some not. They included Whitaker, a middle school shut down years ago for containing dangerous levels of radon, Jefferson High School, the former Concordia University site (which district officials said is outside of the Tubman catchment area), and the Self Enhancement Inc. building (which is not owned by PPS).
‘We call this home’
Parents and students also spoke about the generations of families who attended King, and its legacy and reputation among members of the Black community in Portland.
Robinson has strong ties to King. Her father attended King and was there when the school was renamed, from Highland Elementary to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary. She also worked in the school before serving as PTA president. One of her children attended King, and another is a second grader there now.
“We call this home,” Robinson said.
“...My dad said, ‘Having my grandkids go to the schools that I went to when I was younger is nothing but a dream, because a lot of things changed.’”
While district officials stressed that no decision has been made, both historical and current context caused King families to be skeptical of the district.
Several families pointed out the district’s and even the city of Portland’s poor track record when it comes to supporting Black families — including the initial I-5 development that broke up the Albina community and gentrification that further pushes Black Portlanders out of the city.
“I don’t think that they should be using our predominantly African-American schools to try and fix some type of freeway, and add some type of freeway to our areas where we’ve already been gentrified all the way out to Gresham area,” Robinson said.
Environmental concerns related to Tubman’s proximity to I-5 have been discussed for years, even when the school reopened in 2018.
“I don’t believe that King should have to suffer for freeway expansion,” said King PTA vice president Tyler Brown.
One former Tubman student, a climate justice youth organizer with the Sunrise Movement, asked officials at Thursday’s meeting to put pressure on the Oregon Department of Transportation to do a more thorough environmental impact study on the freeway project.
District officials acknowledged that change is hard no matter what happens, but that they will seek more community input before the board makes a decision on a new site for Tubman.
“No decision will be made before February,” Garcia told families Thursday. In a follow up message to families who attended meetings last week, Garcia reiterated his point.
“As with any relocation and rebuild of a school, we have a long decision and planning schedule that stretches years; and as we indicated this week, these community sessions are the first of many,” he wrote.
At the same time, the district is facing an “extremely urgent” timeline in requesting funds from the state for the relocation. According to the district’s draft proposal to the state, cost estimates for a relocation range from $114 million to $168 million. Though the proposal has not been sent to state officials yet, the district plans to advocate for the money during the legislature’s short session in February.
But there seems to be a disconnect in how much information the state needs to know in advance of the February session.
Brim-Edwards said the state wants to know the proposed site for the location before it hands over the money.
“It would be difficult for them to appropriate money … without a site,” she said.
But if the district wants more community engagement before making a decision, the holiday break presents a timing issue. The district will not actually continue its community engagement until Jan. 5, giving PPS leaders just four weeks to engage communities about closing one school and possibly displacing another.
At Thursday’s meeting, Frederick, the state senator, also shared that while Oregon has funds to spend on this relocation, it would be “difficult” for PPS to finish siting the project in such a short timeline.
As the conversations continue, King students, families and staff have committed to keeping their school as is, pledging to push the district to choose another site.
“We will fight like you have never seen,” said one staff member.