Portland Public Schools district headquarters at 550 N. Wheeler Place in Portland, Oregon, Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018.

Portland Public Schools district headquarters at 550 N. Wheeler Place in Portland, Oregon, Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018.

Bradley W. Parks/OPB

Last-minute voters turned in their ballots Tuesday. It’s a small election, dominated by school board races across Oregon.

In Portland Public Schools, each of the four seats has at least two candidates on the ballot   – though some candidates have dropped out of the race.

They range from an incumbent to a father who entered the race because “he didn’t see better people out there.”

The election comes at a critical time for Portland Public Schools. Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero is finishing up his second school year on the job. And construction projects to clean up and modernize school buildings are underway – including projects made possible by a $790 million bond passed by voters in 2017.

But it’s not all rosy in Oregon’s largest district. The Secretary of State released an audit earlier this year that found PPS fails low-income students and students of color. Plus, new board members will have to work on another bond to modernize schools, in the wake of apparent mishandling of the most recent bond.

Community trust in the district remains low, after PPS administrators discovered the actual costs of the 2017 bond exceeding estimates, and an audit found the district lowballed the bond by $100 million.

The Incumbent

Portland school board member Amy Kohnstamm proposed delaying a bond measure for Oregon's largest district until May 2017.

Portland school board member Amy Kohnstamm proposed delaying a bond measure for Oregon’s largest district until May 2017.

Portland Public Schools/PPS

Amy Kohnstamm wasn’t sure she’d run for reelection.

“I was active with a lot of parents and, and grassroots activists around the city in trying to make sure we had good candidates come forward for all four of the zones, including my own, if there was someone who wanted to come forward,” she said.

But she ultimately decided to run, the only incumbent to do so. She says she wants to be around for the district as it changes under Superintendent Guerrero.

But board members who were in place three years ago, when the 2017 bond was passed, have faced criticism, particularly Kohnstamm, who chaired the board’s bond committee. 

She says there’s still time to manage the costs of the bond projects.

“There’s also possibility that, you know, this climate may cool and the costs may not be quite what our budgets are predicting now that we have very conservative budgets,” said Kohnstamm.

With the board’s charge to prepare a 2020 bond for voters, Kohnstamm says things are different this time around – starting with a new staff.

“I have more confidence in the technical information that we’re getting and the recommendations that we’re getting because this district has become a lot more functional in the last year and a half under the new leadership team,” said Kohnstamm.

Kohnstamm also wants to see better communication between the district and the public. 

She says this is a time of change for the district – there’s a strategic plan in the works and a renewed focus on students.

The district is also working with an outside facilitator to learn best practices for effective school boards. 

“We will work to really structure all of our agendas and most of our meeting time in the future around metrics of student achievement,” said Kohnstamm. 

If Kohnstamm loses, Portland Public Schools will be looking at four new directors – turning over more than half the all-volunteer board.

The candidates grouped here may not be running against each other, but school district races are district-wide – which means every voter living within the district boundary will have each PPS race on their ballot.

Offering City Experience To Schools

Andrew Scott is a PPS parent and a graduate of Wilson High School, which is within the southwest Portland zone he’s running for. His opponent, Jeff Sosne, dropped out of the race but his name remains on the ballot. 

Scott is also the deputy chief operating officer for the Metro regional government. He has a financial background, having worked as budget director at the city of Portland.

At a Black Voices United candidate forum last month, Scott talked about rebuilding Portland’s aging school buildings.

A view of the main Franklin High School building through the windows of the new athletic center. Franklin was rebuilt under Portland Public Schools' 2012 construction bond.

A view of the main Franklin High School building through the windows of the new athletic center. Franklin was rebuilt under Portland Public Schools’ 2012 construction bond.

Laura Klinkner/OPB

“I think we’re at an opportunity here with our bond program in terms of modernizing all the schools,” said Scott. “We didn’t do a whole lot for 20 or 30 years – we need to go back and make those investments.” 

Another of Scott’s major priorities is making sure the educational experience across PPS is equitable.

“I think we owe the entire district – really the entire community, the same opportunity that I had and the same opportunity my kids are currently getting,” said Scott.

A board seat across the Willamette River has also drawn a candidate with ties to Portland’s city government: housing bureau community engagement and policy coordinator, Michelle DePass. 

She’s raised the most money out of any of the board candidates, with $42,044 in total contributions.

At the Black Voices United forum, DePass, who is also a PPS parent, told voters she has experience, passion, and a record of accomplishments in Portland.

She wants to close Portland’s achievement gap – and diversify district ranks.

“We need to be serious about a more culturally diverse and racially representative district – human capital, that’s across the board,” said DePass. “Leadership, board members, admin, teachers.”

DePass is running against Shanice Clarke – the only two candidates of color actively running for the board this election. The only current board member of color, Julie Esparza Brown, is stepping down after serving a four-year term.

The Community Members

Shanice Clarke works at Portland State University as a program coordinator for the school’s Pan-African student center.

At the candidates’ forum, she said working with students inspired her to run. Clarke says she wants district leadership to be held accountable by the communities they serve.

“That is a key reason why I’m running – to try and center wraparound supports, restorative discipline practices, and stronger retention efforts to keep teachers and staff in schools,” said Clarke.

She wants to put student voice at the center of the district’s work and decision-making.

Running against incumbent Kohnstamm is Deb Mayer, an education advocate and blogger. She’s testified in Salem on bills related to screen time and radiation from technology.

“Now is the time I think to move towards safer schools, a richer curriculum,” said Mayer. “All of the things that we want our kids to have that make schools a great place to be.”

Parents See Opening In Southeast

Eilidh Lowery meets with a group of moms every Wednesday at Communion Bakehouse in Portland’s Westmoreland neighborhood.

She’s been involved with her daughter’s schools for years, but last year, she took that involvement to the Oregon Department of Education. Lowery was upset with changes to the middle school schedule that meant a loss of art classes for some students. So she started advocating and learning more about the laws and policies around education.

“I realized the more I did that, that the more Portland public schools needed someone like me who could ask questions, hold accountability, create places of common ground, respect  people and try to find the best way forward,” said Lowery.

Her Wednesday moms’ group pushed her to run – and then became her campaign staff.

Like other candidates, her focus is on the Secretary of State’s PPS audit and preparing a 2020 bond to send to voters.

But she’s also focused on full implementation of Oregon’s comprehensive sexual education curriculum and access to arts.

She’s running against Robert Schultz, a father of three. He says he’s running to make sure student needs are understood and taken care of in the classroom. 

He sees a system that’s lacking for his kids.

“We want our kids to graduate and go out and work and be productive I don’t feel strongly that the system is providing that now and I feel like the only way to do anything is to step up and get in there,” said Schultz.

Schultz and Lowery are running against each other in the seat covering schools at the southeastern end of Portland.

The expected turnover on the board points to how difficult and time-consuming it is to be a volunteer supervising Oregon’s largest school district.

The board is working with an outside facilitator to reduce the load, from what some say is a 20-hour a week unpaid job.

And the board will have work to do as soon as they sit down in July… starting with planning a bond measure for skeptical voters to approve next year.