Schools 2017: PPS 411

Portland Public Schools Is in a State of Flux. What Do Parents Need to Know?

From boundary reviews to bond campaigns, here’s the 411 on PPS.

By Margaret Seiler January 23, 2017 Published in the February 2017 issue of Portland Monthly

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Lead in the water. An empty top job. New schools. Boundary changes that might happen this year, or next year, or someday, or never. Is Portland Public Schools always a juggling routine on roller skates, or are we living through strange days?

“This is new for me,” confirms Jason Trombley, a community advocate and longtime PPS volunteer who co-chairs the District-wide Boundary Review Advisory Committee, or DBRAC, which is steering efforts to redraw PPS’s map. “This seems like it’s a very rare circumstance, where a lot of things are happening at once on a large scale.”

A lot of things? You bet. Here are just a few.

Superintendent search. Longtime chief Carole Smith resigned last summer amid fury over the handling of information about high levels of lead in some schools’ drinking water. Bob McKean, a retired Centennial superintendent, was appointed interim superintendent; the district aims to fill the post this spring.

Middle schools. A decade ago, school closures created many new K–8 schools, often serving lower-income communities. But the K–8s can’t fit what the district now defines as a “right-size” student body: enough students per grade, for sixth through eighth, to support the same range of programming as a standalone middle school. “We knew we had to pick one model that is sustainable for the buildings we have,” Trombley says, “and that’s the K–5 model.” Thus many K–8s will switch back to elementaries and middle schools. Ockley Green Middle opened its doors this year. The PPS board approved a resolution last summer to open the additional Roseway Heights and Harriet Tubman Middle Schools for 2017–18, but now both have been pushed back at least another year.*

Boundary review. A comprehensive revision of the invisible lines dividing neighborhood school zones was supposed to happen with the K–8 reconfigurations. But the work has also been delayed and turned piecemeal. This winter, DBRAC will finalize boundary recommendations for part of North Portland, then move on to the rest of the east side, then the west side. Until a final plan is approved by the board, many current and future PPS families don’t know where their children will end up.

Bond campaign. The PPS board slated a $750 million construction bond—the largest local bond in Oregon history—for the upcoming May ballot, with funds intended to rebuild Lincoln and Madison high schools, among other improvements.

High school shuffle. With construction funded by a previous bond under way at Franklin, that school’s students have spent two years at the old Marshall High campus; Grant students will fill Marshall this fall when their school begins major renovations.

The next union contract. Negotiations continue with the Portland Association of Teachers. Before the last contract was approved in February 2014, the union was 48 hours away from a walkout. This time around, changes in district leadership have delayed negotiations and the failure of Measure 97 has added a new tension. “There’s not enough money for all the things our students deserve,” says Suzanne Cohen, the union’s president, but she adds that early agreements hold “a lot of positive things for educators and students.”

*Disclosure: The writer and other PoMo staff have children bound for the three new middle schools. Go Dragons/Panthers/Conductors!

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