Gentrification, Testing, and Social Justice: School Boards Sit at the Center of the Storm

How Portland’s volunteer education leaders cope with an impossible job.

By Fiona McCann January 15, 2016 Published in the February 2016 issue of Portland Monthly

At 5:55 on a dark, bristling-cold November evening, about 70 people wait in a vast, grime-beige North Portland bunker, headquarters for Portland Public Schools. The Grant High School lacrosse team takes up two rows of seats, among students, teachers, parents, and citizens from across the district.

At precisely six o’clock, Amy Kohnstamm, the PPS board member running tonight’s meeting as vice chair, summons board colleague Steve Buel from wandering the audience. Kohnstamm sits alongside her fellow elected members, a student representative, and Carole Smith, the long-reigning superintendent who oversees the largest public district in the city (and state). Together, they brace for a two-hour delve into the madness and minutiae of public school policy, heads slightly bowed as if plowing into a gale.

For Kohnstamm, this is just another meeting on a jam-packed schedule that serves as a small chronicle of civic duty and arcana. Within the past week, she’s attended a bargaining session at the teachers union’s office, toured renovations at two high schools, met one on one with five different PPS employees and volunteers, and lunched with high school scholarship recipients. She’s given two interviews, met with the Oregon labor commissioner, made a board subcommittee meeting, and sympathized with concerned parents at a North Portland school. She also reviewed costs for a bond program and dropped by a different North Portland school to talk about its partnership with a private college. 

And that’s not to mention the three separate meetings about the issue that roiled Portland Public Schools through fall: proposals to change attendance boundaries at some two dozen schools across the city, a process whose advisory committee was known by the vaguely sinister acronym DBRAC. The city’s rapid growth and changing demographics, combined with district policies, have left some schools bursting at the seams, and others critically undercrowded. (North Portland’s Beach K–8 is overflowing, while less than a mile and a half away King cannot attract enough students to fund a full slate of programs.) The district’s attempt to right this imbalance sparked passionate debate over proposed scenarios that would change future school assignments for thousands of students, while converting most K–8 schools into either elementary or middle schools. At public meetings, rhetoric sometimes became inflamed, with parents slamming the proposals for “fracturing communities” and accusing PPS of “playing” parents to “divide and conquer.”

Such is life on the school board. Kohnstamm, who joined the district’s seven-member governing body in July of last year after winning a hotly contested May election, estimates she gets 25 or more e-mails a day. At one of her son’s weekend lacrosse tournaments, she found herself answering questions about the boundary review from other parents—then about field usage from coaches. At a party later that evening she got “grilled” on the board’s decision to ban school choirs from singing at a Catholic sanctuary’s Christmas festival.

And for all this, Kohnstamm and her board colleagues receive not one red cent.

Portland Public Schools’ board oversees a half-billion-dollar budget and the education of almost 50,000 kids—and, thus, the daily schedules, housing decisions, and future prospects of thousands of families. The task is complicated. Oregon boasts (if that’s the word) one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the country—the worst as recently as 2013. Within PPS, that dismal statistic is compounded by a consistent, seemingly intractable “achievement gap” between white kids and kids of color—for every year with extant data, white students in Portland Public Schools have outperformed black, Hispanic, and Native American students on state assessments in every subject, at every grade level.

Then come all the commonplace but fierce controversies: in 2014, for example, the board approved a 28 percent raise for Smith, the superintendent, after a protracted contract dispute that ended with teachers receiving a mere 2.3 percent raise. This decision, among others, fueled criticism that the board appeared to simply rubber-stamp Smith’s policies.

In May 2015, Kohnstamm ran for the board, calling out the incumbents for a “lack of accountability.” She took on long-serving Bobbie Regan in what was likely the most expensive race in the school board’s 163-year history—Kohnstamm raised close to $120,000. Her victory made her one of four new members and part of a power shift perceived by many as an answer to the public’s call for new blood. Her rookie year thus offers a convenient glimpse into what it means to serve on this obscure (but intense) elected body.

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Kohnstamm’s six colleagues will be a fixture in her life for at least the next few years. She’s determined not to speak ill of them—friction among past board members has been no secret. The notoriously contrarian Buel may be “irascible,”  Kohnstamm admits. (In 2014, Buel brought a jar of Skippy peanut butter to several board meetings to protest his colleagues’ rejection of his proposal to ban peanuts in a Northeast Portland school due to food allergies.) But she toes a carefully politic line when she speaks of her colleagues; ask her about divisions or tension, and she will steer the conversation toward aspirational talk of what the board can achieve if everyone works together.

A 50-year-old mother of three, Kohnstamm attended public schools in Portland from kindergarten through high school. She sent her own children to Ainsworth Elementary and Lincoln High. “Really, the education that my wealthy white kids on the west side got was not the same as kids everywhere in the district had,” she says baldly. “That was very offensive to me. That’s not the promise of public education. That’s why I started getting involved more broadly, and that’s eventually what led me to the school board.”

A similar idealism led former member Matt Morton to run for the board, on which he served from 2011 to 2015. “We had seen decade after decade of pretty dismal results for kids of color, for English language learners, and for kids in special education,” says Morton, who recently moved from a job as executive director of the Native American Youth and Family Center to a position at the Meyer Memorial Trust. “The disparities are pretty drastic.”

In his tenure, Morton lived the clash between a desire for change and the practical demands of a voluntary position. Though he’s proud of his four years of service, he chose not to run again at the end of his term. “It is incredibly difficult to put 110 percent into both this volunteer position and the community-based organization that I was running,” he says. “Both are potentially greater than full-time positions. During teachers’ salary negotiations I was sleeping on the couch because I was expecting calls throughout the night as they were coming back with new plans,” he says.

This clash between unpaid board duties and professional life helps explain why it can be difficult to recruit potential candidates. (While Kohnstamm was battling for her west-side seat last spring, fellow new member Mike Rosen ran unopposed to represent a chunk of Southeast Portland.) Kohnstamm, who says she regularly puts in 20 hours a week as a board member, quit her communications job at the nonprofit Mercy Corps in 2013. Her husband, Kevin Kohnstamm, owns a party rental business, and his family runs Timberline Lodge. She carefully acknowledges that she’s lucky. “I feel incredibly fortunate that I can devote this much time to volunteer and civic interest,” she says.

As the minutes turn to hours at November’s school board meeting, testimony flows. A lacrosse player worries about field space for his sport. A queer student speaks out against a proposed remodel that will remove classrooms she sees as “safe places” for LGBTQ students. A parent holds forth on the boundary proposals. After a teacher extolls the merits of national board certification, a student testifies about a friend who, she says, must attend school with her alleged rapist.

This is the school board’s daily (and nightly) world. Kohnstamm and her cohort give each complaint the same consideration they do the district ombudsman’s report, or the business agenda. Their meeting has the trappings of formality, but there’s plenty of empathy for the nervous high school students and fierce parents who testify. The board is the citizenry’s point of access to the administrative quagmire that is public education. Complex and eye-rollingly impenetrable at times, this seven-person entity is also a necessary check on that system, a civic requirement, and a form of real democracy in action. Its decisions will have effects that last long after members’ individual four-year terms are up. (By the time this article appears, for example, the fraught boundary and grade configuration changes probably will have been announced, and the perceived identities of neighborhoods across Portland will subtly change.)

“Not every single thing that I want necessarily is going to come out the way I want it,” says Carol Campbell, principal at Grant High School, in the wake of the November meeting. “But the important thing in an organization like this is to have a place where you can talk about your own ideas and know people are listening. And I get the sense that they are doing that.”

Just about anyone with any stake in the city’s largest school system comes straight at the PPS board. “Portland is the largest school district in Oregon and the second largest in the Pacific Northwest,” ex-board member Morton notes, “so you have a level of scrutiny of your work that just doesn’t exist within other districts.”

“It can be a nasty world out there, particularly with social media,” Kohnstamm says, “the way people conduct themselves and make personal attacks”—none of which seems to bother Kohnstamm, who runs the meeting she chairs with a firm compassion. “As long as we are all committed to being effective together, then I think we have the real capacity to make change,” she says. “If we become fractured and people start working on behalf of agendas, I don’t think that’s healthy as a district, and I don’t think it’s going to serve our students well.”

Someone’s gotta do it. Three east-side seats go up for election next year. Any takers?

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