Portland Public Schools' momentum toward opening two new middle schools slowed dramatically Tuesday as school board members called for more information on the affected buildings and school populations.
Board members could still open both Roseway Heights and Harriet Tubman buildings as middle schools next fall.
But for Tubman to become a fully opened middle school by next fall would take the district "getting lucky," as one board member put it.
School board members said Tuesday that parents were raising questions about potential environmental hazards at the school that the district couldn’t answer. In some cases, parents shared information they obtained from the district through public records requests. Board members said district staff had not shown them that information.
The inconsistent information about Tubman's environmental conditions led board member Rita Moore to apologize to Portland parents.
"I now believe that I was either misinformed, or I misunderstood, and I passed along incorrect information," Moore said. "I wish I'd asked more questions; I wish we'd all asked more questions."
Tubman is above a heavily trafficked section of Interstate 5 near the Rose Quarter and was until recently home to a K-8 program.
Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero laid out the district's goal for the studies.
“We first and foremost (want to) ensure that every one of our students is in a healthy and safe building, that we do our due diligence, and that we be accountable and transparent about it,” Guerrero said.
The district plans to study the indoor and outdoor air quality at Tubman and to gather information on potential landslide risk. The district is simultaneously exploring possible alternative sites for the proposed middle school.
In the same vote, board members reassured parents that the ACCESS Academy alternative program for gifted students would have a facility — possibly more than one — as the district reconfigures next fall.
ACCESS parents, many wearing green "ACCESS Atoms" T-shirts, were grateful for the reassurance, even as students lobbied the board for a single building for the whole program.
North and Northeast Portland parents reacted with a mix of concern to the Tubman delay, especially those who are anticipating stronger programs for students in sixth through eighth grades than what is currently offered in K–8 schools.
Danise Elijah has two children at Martin Luther King, Jr. K–8, one of four buildings initially planned to become elementary schools, feeding to the proposed middle school at Tubman. She watched in frustration as she sensed board members and Guerrero make stronger guarantees for the ACCESS program than to her children's neighborhood school in a historically African-American part of Northeast Portland.
"There's a lot of urgency towards finding ACCESS a home, even if they have to split it so that kids can be served," Elijah said. "At my son's school right now, they don't even have math that's preparing them to go to high school."
Elijah fumed that Guerrero didn't attend a meeting for North and Northeast Portland neighborhood parents and relied on a "few phone calls" to leaders in the African-American community. Meanwhile, he did attend a meeting with ACCESS parents following his decision not to close ACCESS as initially proposed.
Board members maintained "the goal" of opening Tubman, or an alternative site, as a middle school in fall 2018. Martin Luther King Jr., Boise-Eliot/Humboldt, Irvington and Sabin K-8 would be feeders to that middle school.
Guerrero reacted cautiously saying, "we don't know what we don't know," regarding the environmental conditions at Tubman or the complexities of finding alternative middle school sites.
Those alternative sites for a middle school are also raising the blood pressure of parents like Elijah. She's among several parents who suspect King K–8 may become the middle school "alternative." The district briefly considered converting King into a middle school two years ago and then scrapped the idea when the school community objected.
Officials aren't sharing what alternative sites they're studying.
Neither finding an alternative site nor measuring the dozen or more potential environmental hazards at Tubman is a quick process. The district's chief strategic officer, Laura Parker, offered a dire assessment of the board's directives to analyze Tubman and explore other sites.
"A change in scope would absolutely derail us from being able to open in 2018–19," Parker said, repeating a view she said she shared with board members last summer. "It's definitely out of scope."
The additional information for Roseway Heights is likely to be much easier to gather.
Board members asked for more information about the "underlying assumptions" on how buildings would be used and where school boundary lines would be drawn. The latest proposal would involve turning the K–8 programs at Lee, Scott and Vestal into elementary schools, and making Rose City Park — which now houses the ACCESS Academy alternative program and two grades of the Beverly Cleary School — into a neighborhood elementary.