[video: measure-26-193-explained,left,5911f45d8e59b004226081e7] Earlier this week, Portland Public Schools celebrated the opening of a brand new high school. The very same day, district leaders had to evacuate another high school when sewage backed up. The combination of problems and promise symbolizes a crossroads for Oregon’s largest school district heading into the May 16 election.
A year ago, Portland parents were mad. They packed auditoriums at Creston K-8 and Rose City Park schools to question and criticize school leaders after district officials admitted to downplaying the discovery of
Parent Mike Southern was among the parents calling on the school board to fire Superintendent Carole Smith.
"It is time that we as a city and community demand better," Southern said at one meeting, calling on the school board to fire then-Supt. Carole Smith. "The damage has been done. There is no making this right. Lead is running through the blood of our kids."
A few months later, Smith retired early.
School Board Chair Tom Koehler shared those uncomfortable moments on school stages with Carole Smith.
“I understood. I understood why people were angry and upset," Koehler told OPB in a recent interview. "We’ve neglected ... the infrastructure needs of our district. And we did it for a reason because we wanted to put the money in the classroom. It finally caught up with us.”
School leaders have been saying since last summer that the "big fix" for school buildings is a series of school bonds, backed by local property taxpayers. After failing to get a bond passed in 2011, voters approved the district's first borrowing plan in many years in 2012 — allowing PPS to rebuild four schools: Franklin, Grant and Roosevelt high schools and Faubion K-8.
Koehler and the rest of the board put another bond measure on the May 16 ballot to continue that effort, after balking at putting the measure on the November ballot. School leaders say the $790 million package — the largest school bond measure in state history — can fix the health problems in district buildings.
It would raise local property taxes by $1.40 per $1,000 of assessed value over the first four years, costing the average home in the district about $280 over each of those years. The tax level is slated to decline after that.
Supporters have yard signs that say “I'm doing my part to get the lead out.” But the measure has its skeptics. A homemade sign in the window of one North Portland home reads "No More PPS $, No on 26-193."
District-wide, repairs and health measures make up $150 million of the $790-million bond. Most of the money would rebuild or renovate four schools, including Lincoln High School in downtown Portland.
“This school’s generally considered to be built for about 1,000 people, 900 to 1,000 people. And currently, we’re at about 1,700," Lincoln principal Peyton Chapman said on a recent tour. "We have built in temporary classrooms into our cafeteria, six of those. We have also used what used to be storage, turned those into classrooms.”
The school is so full that when portable units were destroyed in a fire, some teachers had to hold their classes in a church four blocks away. There are classrooms in the basement, where it’s really hot, even on a mild April day.
"In the afternoons, it’s horrible. The kids just can’t focus or concentrate. It’s just a nightmare to try and teach," said Peter Devry, who teaches math in a windowless room in the Lincoln basement.
The bond would pay to completely rebuild Lincoln High — from a low, concrete building in the shadow of downtown into a towering, modern mixed-use facility. Across town, the mothballed Kellogg Middle School would also be completely rebuilt, while Northeast Portland's Benson and Madison high schools would be thoroughly renovated.
If the bond doesn't pass, the district will be forced to stretch existing dollars to pay for maintenance fixes out of the same fund that pays teachers.
The bond election will be a pivotal moment for Lincoln High School — and all of Portland Public Schools. There are parent activists working to get the bond approved, but some Portlanders say they remain skeptical of a district that has drawn criticism for its handling of issues ranging from lead and radon to public meetings and records.
Whether the bond passes or fails, there’s also a huge leadership vacuum to fill. The board announced their preferred superintendent candidate, Atlanta Public Schools administrator Donyall Dickey, two months ago. But they still haven’t signed a contract with him.
And none of the three board members up for reelection decided to run again,
, the board chairman. There are eleven new candidates running for the open seats, bringing different experiences and interests to the races.
Take the races in Zone 5, for instance.
Scott Bailey has served on some key district advisory committees, dealing with the transfer policy and school restructuring.
"I've had a positive impact on this district and I want to be able to continue that as a board member," he said.
He's running against businesswoman Traci Flitcraft and parent activist Virginia LaForte, who gained attention last year when she helped expand the district's environmental health efforts beyond lead in drinking water to include lead paint exposure. LaForte said she aims to unite a dysfunctional school board.
"Imagine what we can do together as board members, with a new superintendent," she said. "We need to change the culture. And again, culture changes don't take years. It just takes the right people."
The remaining four board members — Paul Anthony, Julie Esparza Brown, Amy Kohnstamm and Mike Rosen — have only been serving for two years each. So the new board, regardless of who wins the May 16 races, will be raw.
One of the newcomers wouldn't be quite so new. Nike executive Julia Brim-Edwards served on the PPS board in the early 2000s, a period when the district was weathering budget cuts and closing schools. She and five other candidates are running to replace Koehler.
“I really do think we’re at a fork in the road for PPS," she said. "District staff is so lean, the lack of leadership, and it could easily go one direction or another. I think the stakes are very high in these board elections.”
Whatever happens in the election, the district is changing dramatically. The new board and new superintendent may have a huge list of repair and construction projects to oversee — even as they work to rebuild trust among parents whose children still can't drink from their school water fountains.