Saving SUN's Funding From the Mean Girls

By Gil Johnson of Dundee, Oregon. Gil describes himself as a "part-time chicken farmer and full-time martial arts instructor, and a former political hack." Previously, he contributed "Pay as you grow" and "Oregon Inc.: Educate, Medicate, Incarcerate."

When Diane Linn called them the “Mean Girls,” I just thought that it was one more scratch in and ongoing political catfight at the Multnomah County Commission.

But mean they are. Commissioners Serena Cruz Walsh, Lisa Naito and Maria Rojo de Steffey want to slash $1.6 million out of the county's contribution to the popular and effectivef SUN program. SUN stands for Schools Uniting Neighborhoods and provides after-school educational opportunities to low-income children. A large percentage of the participants in the SUN programs would otherwise be latchkey kids.       

You probably have read about this brouhaha in The Oregonian or the latest Willamette Week. If not, you can read S. Renee Mitchell's scathing column here.

I'm hoping someone who reads or contributes to Blueoregon can help. Neither a surprisingly coherent editorial in The Oregonian nor a rally of several hundred people at Monday's commission hearing seems to have swayed these three Heathers. Evidently they have no qualms about committing political suicide, so it's going to have to get personal.       

Does anyone know any of the anti-SUN commissioners on a first name basis? If so, can you talk to her and and talk some sense into her? (Eric Sten, are you reading this? Serena used to work for you and I see both of you together at City Club luncheons. Give her a call.)       

If that fails, let's get the next county commission on record as supporting full funding of SUN. Jeff Cogen, one of the candidates for the seat that Serena Cruz, told The Oregonian he opposes the cuts. I'm sure that Lew Frederick, his opponent, would support SUN as well, considering he used to work for Portland Public Schools. That leaves incoming commission chair Ted Wheeler. Anybody know him and where he stands on the issue?       

The proposed cuts—about half of the county's share and about a third of the whole budget—are supposed to shrink the program's administration costs by eliminating the site managers at participating schools (currently there are 52 schools with SUN programs). This is ridiculous. The site managers are not bureaucratic paper pushers; they are the glue that holds together dozens of after school activities and hundreds of kids at each school.      

Site managers make sure the kids get their snack, get to the right class or activity, When the kids get disruptive, the site manager's office is the after-school equivalent of the principal'ws office. After the classes are over, the site managers baby sit the kids until their parents show up—and rare is the day that every parent shows up to pick up every kid. If the site managers are eliminated, who is going to make the phone calls and wait around to be sure that left behind child will be going home—or on occasion, drive the child home?       

The site managers also monitor the people who teach the after-school classes, who usually are not credentialed teachers. My taekwon-do organization provided four teachers to SUN programs this past year and though they are good at working with children and teaching taekwon-do, they are not the same as professional teachers. They get paid from $10 to $15 an hour. Our program gets great reviews from the students and parents, but every year there are new classes and it's up to site managers to make sure the teachers are doing things appropriate for the children in those schools.    

SUN was the brainchild of former county commission chair Bev Stein and former city commissioner Jim Francesconi. It initially targeted elementary schools. I remember a few years ago talking with Diane Linn and suggesting that more middle schools be involved in SUN, because pre-teens left alone are at an extremely high risk of getting into drugs and other detrimental activities. She was ahead of me on that, having planned on more middle schools as the program expanded.       

The flowering of the SUN programs is perhaps Linn's one positive legacy from her tenure on the county commission. Some have suggested this is the reason why the Mean Girls are doing this. I can't believe they would be so petty and stupid.

Comments

  • Sid (unverified)
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    Looks like the "Mean Girls" are all too willing to exacerbate the "two Americas" John Edwards spoke of during his bid for the Dem nomination in '04. When he expanded on the "two Americas" concept by talking about the two public school systems in America he hit it right on the head, and the "Mean Girls" aren't helping by cutting SUN. And in cutting SUN it's not just the educational opportunities that are lost, it's a future for those kids who gain from SUN and grow up to be contributing, productive members of our community.

    The "Mean Girls" claim they have to fund other programs for people who have fallen through the cracks. But aren't they being short-sighted by perpetuating that need by not providing a program for children that keeps them from falling through the cracks in the first place?

  • Jesse O (unverified)
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    Well, Gil and Sid, what do you want the County to cut?

    Saying "don't cut this" comes across as whiny, and is probably why the SUN folks haven't yet won. Come up with a different $1.6 million to cut, and you might be seen as a solution-maker (I'll start you with an easy $38,000: prorate Lonnie Roberts' salary to be the half-time employee he is).

    Or, hey, maybe we could just go out to the Money Tree and pick some more money of the branches...

  • jrw (unverified)
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    Sorry, folks, this isn't limited to the Mean Girls or SUN.

    Diane was on the bandwagon, along with the Mean Girls, when 4-H and Extension got cut in Multnomah County. Unlike SUN, however, we didn't have an Oregonian columnist who jumped on the bandwagon to publicize it; however, we had the same sort of turnout, same sort of testimony including Latino adults who were getting food and nutrition services from Extension for their kids, but the definite favored group, a smaller group of GLBT kids who did get their funding, got priority in the testimony and felt free to sneer at the 4-H kids who were testifying.

    The issue is more that these folks, despite the rhetoric, do not prioritize kids unless it fits a very limited agenda, especially if the benefit is for a group of low-income or minority kids.

    This is nothing new from this group of county commissioners, and that includes Diane.

  • Bob Tucker (unverified)
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    I observe that around here, if a program (or school) claims to do good things and is well intentioned or has the right demographics, then no matter what the cost or tradeoffs, whether it actually works or not, there will be a 100 person rally and hearing to save it. I don't know if cuts to SUN are bad or practical or if they are justifed. I don't have any connection to it (and I don't know what the connection is to the author in Dundee, which is in Yamhill County). I think that Multnomah County, like the City of PDX and School Board, make choices based on how many people show up at a meeting, regardless of data. I don't know if this is a data driven decision or what. I do think its silly to claim that the "mean girls" are facilitating "2 americas" because they choose one costly social service program over another. It's not like they turned the funds into corporate kicker checks. Popular, feel good programs don't always work. In this community all that matters is whose loudest (or most well heeled) not who's accurate. I'd like to know how many of the people who turned out to the rally/hearing were paid to be there (i.e. on the SUN payroll) or were recruited to the hearing by people who are paid to run SUN. I think a lot of these protests about program cuts are as much about people keeping their jobs as it is about any program's end results. Also, doesn't Linn want to open Wapato? Unless there is a magic bag of money, she'd have to cut some sacred cows to get that done.

  • Xander Patterson (unverified)
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    I am chair of the Citizen Budget Advisory Committee (CBAC) for the Department of Schools and Community Partnerships (DSCP)that administers the SUN Schools program. To be fair to the 3 commissioners, to balance the county's inadequate budget important programs must be cut. What we really need is more funding. That is, the rich and corporate who have been receiving the huge tax cuts that have created the tight budget need to pay thier fair share.

    That said, cutting SUN amazes me because it flies in the face of all input gathered in the budget process.

    The "Outcome Team" comprised of county staff and a citizen that was charged with prioritizing education-related programs ranked SUN the #1 priority.

    The School and Community Partnerships CBAC emphasized the need for full SUN funding in both its written report and its public testimony. None of the 3 raised any questions about SUN - or any other program - during the testimony.

    The DSCP Department Director through in his budget transmittal letter and public testimony emphasized the importance of SUN.

    Even the County Commissioners ranked SUN 18th out of 34 Education programs.

    Monday night the community turned out in force to a budget hearing to tell the commissioners just how important SUN is to us. As Renee reported the 3 did not appear to listen respectfully to the crowd.

    Even after all the flap they got for back room dealing to avoid fair and open process over the same sex marriage affair, they still do not seem to have learned to listen to staff, citizens, or each other. That's not the way to run a government.

    Xander Patterson

  • Brian (unverified)
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    I live in NE and have a daughter who just finished 7th grade. The SUN school/program at Beaumont Middle School has been a real gem for both my daughter and many of the kids involved.

    My daughter participatea in some of the activities and many of the kids involved would not have any chance at the extra curricular activities if not for SUN and the low cost activities they provide.

    SUN should be saved. How about tolls on the county bridges?

  • Ross Williams (unverified)
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    Where to start?

    The budgets for the county commissioners personal budgets has been going up while the county budget has been going down. They have hidden this by transferring a bunch of services out of their own budgets to the clerk's office budget.

    Lonnie is not the only part time Commissioner - he does his job as commissioner as well as any of them. In fact he may spend more time actually representing his consituents. Virtually all the other commissioners have had to invent things to do because the legislative functions they are elected to do just isn't a full time job. Part of the problem with all the animosity at the county comes from Commissioners with too much time on their hands. Its time to cut them back to part time jobs, just like in Washington County.

    Its not that their personal projects aren't useful, its that they would mostly be better done by professional staff hired for that purpose. And I suspect most of them wouldn't last very long if held up to a bright light during the budget process and compared to programs like the Sun Schools. But no one is going to go after another commissioners pet project.

    The Sauvie Island bridge is a good example. Commissioner de Steffey's involvement has made it one of the county's top transportation priorities while the county is faced with a similar looming crisis on the Sellwood bridge that really should be getting the transportation department's attention and the Commissioner's political weight for a regional solution. There is no doubt the Sauvie Island bridge needs to be fixed, but it has taken on more importance than it deserves given other needs. And that is largely because Commissioner de Steffey had the time and resources to make it her personal project.

    Another place they could cut back it the new budget process which has cost over a million dollars more to get to the same place as the old process. Department directors should be focused on improving their departments delivery of services, not acting as the county commissioners public policy research staff and advisers. The fact is the most important decisions, where real savings and efficienciea can be found, is in improving how the 95% of the budget everyone agrees on is spent. Instead that 95% is getting the least time, while the budget process has the County's most talented managers absorbed in the county commissioners personal squabbles over less than 5% of the budget.

    Its not that the theory is bad, its that they have spent huge amounts of money on it to so little effect. In fact, I doubt they even realize the cost since most of the staff time is hidden in department budgets. The first thing Wheeler should do is force a real accounting of the cost. I think it would be an eye-opener.

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    I don't think it is fair to call the three commissioners unfeeling or anti-children. They are trying to balance a budget with too many requests and not enough funds.

    Having said that, they are making a bad decision in several ways. By cutting the county contribution by 50% and eliminating 50% of the directors, they will make all of the programs ineffective. Sun Schools are one of the best programs that the county provides. Without going through all the options, there has to be other choices. If there aren't, then it would be better to shut the program down, send the money that isn't cut back to the social service agencies so they can allocate it as best they can. Having a lot of poorly run sun schools makes no sense whatsoever. However, when government gets a highly visible, positive program with strong constituent support, it does not make sense to put it on the chopping block first. It is tone deaf.

  • anon (unverified)
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    What would Ted do?

  • Jennifer W (unverified)
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    I thought Democrats cared about the CHILDREN? Aren't the mean girls all Democrats?

    How about cutting the "Percent for Art" program? It may be inadequate (in a single fiscal year) to fully fund SUN, but it sends the message that children are more important than publicly subsidized artists.

    Bob Tucker: if you look at the busloads of kids that show up at the capitol to lobby for school funding, you don't believe the kids made that decision all by themselves?

  • Buckman Res (unverified)
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    I’m not a fan of term limits but in the case of the Multnomah County Commission the public will be well served by Serena terming out, soon to be followed by the others.

    Let’s hope the voters remember her behavior on the commission when she takes another stab at running for the city council.

  • Gil Johnson (unverified)
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    Buckman Res: I'm going to remember this episode and I'll do my damndest to remind other voters about Serena's cupidity.

    Today's Portland Tribune (admittedly a less-than-reliable source) ran an editorial supporting the SUN programs and asserting that there is no "compelling financial reason" to cut the SUN budget. The editorial stated that both Linn and commissioner Lonnie Roberts have produced county budgets that leave SUN untouched.

    There's never enough money for every worthy government function and it's always disheartening to see different agencies competing with each other and even sniping at one another. Notwithstanding a previous post, however, SUN have been proven effective and provides a good return on the county's investment.

    Here's one thing about county spending that gives me pause: the county contracts out most of its spending on social services--including SUN--to non-profit organizations. Many of the SUN programs are administered by Portland Impact, while others are administered by the county. Why the split? Which is most cost effective? Does contracting out to non-profits save money because non-profit employees get lower pay and benefits? Or does the added cost of having county personnel monitor the non-profits increase spending (or conversely, does the lack of oversight result in poorly spent money)? I don't know the answers to these questions, but I sure hope somebody does.

  • NoPo Guy (unverified)
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    I am a teacher at Madison High School. Other than that, I have no connection to the SUN program . . . in fact, I came in pre-disposed to dislike it because of its ties to back to Francesconi and his agenda, which fortunately got righteously kicked in the posterior a couple of elections back.

    But I am delighted to write now about how wrong I was in doubting the SUN program. I have seen, with my own overworked, after-hours eyes, the SUN people do amazing, surprising, creative, wonderful things with kids who are truly marginal. I know in my bones that the dropout rate among minorities (already a public scandal) would be measurably higher without this program. Anyone who's in the building can see this clearly.

    Schools need money for a lot of things . . . the list is familiar and endless, so I won't bother with it here. Still, I can't think of a better way to spend these particular dollars than on the SUN program. The SUN people get lots and lots of bang for the buck, they serve a hugely underserved at-risk population, and - here is the best part - they do it successfully.

    Using those dollars to open up the Wapato jail is a policy desicion thick with irony. It's the sort of gesture one would expect of a Dick Morris.

    So: the Mean Girls will be remembered at election time. They're going down. I know I'll work for their opponents, urge my neighbors to put up lawn signs, make calls, contribute to the folks that are going to unseat them, and generally do what I can to put an end to the effects of their epic poor judgment in this matter. They seem to be angry at Diane Linn, who is not on the radar anymore. What they are doing appears to be a petty tirade against someone who is gone. It's unworthy of us here in Multnomah County. It's ignorant, futile, and just plain wrong.

  • Ramon (unverified)
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    I’m not a fan of term limits but in the case of the Multnomah County Commission the public will be well served by Serena terming out, soon to be followed by the others.

    Career politicians, themselves, usually make the best argument for term limits.

  • Ross Williams (unverified)
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    Just remember its now Serena Cruz Walsh and lets hope the voters realize the connection when it becomes Serena Walsh. There are plenty of people who see that Walsh construction sign at Columbia Villa and now wonder about Serena's role in making the proposed North Portland library a part of the new development over the objections of most of the folks who hadadvocated for it. They hadn't realized the connection until now.

    I would not finally judge Lisa and Maria by this episode. With Serena gone as the instigator and Diane gone as the targetr, they have the chance to redeem themselves in the next couple years with how they work with the three "boys". If the petty politics continues, they have no one to blame but themselves. But if the new crew works together productively then Lisa and Maria deserve some credit for it as well.

  • Ross Williams (unverified)
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    Career politicians, themselves, usually make the best argument for term limits.

    I agree. But, on the other hand, this whole episode is the nightmare that term limits creates. Elected politicians with no accountability.

  • Ross Williams (unverified)
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    Why the split? Which is most cost effective? Does contracting out to non-profits save money because non-profit employees get lower pay and benefits?

    I don't know the answers in this specific case. But I think it is a mistake to see contracting out purely in budgetary terms. Non-profits are called partners for a reason. They bring resources to the table, including skilled, experienced staff, that the county would not be able to replace easily. Non-profits have the ability to be more innnovative and can leverage other resources that the county would not be able to.

    On the other hand. Turning county government entirely into paper pushers with no direct responsibility for delivering services is the road to ruin. And without the county programs in place, the non-profits start to be pressed into taking on projects based on the county's perceptions of need rather than the non-profits own evaluation of how the community's needs intersect with their mission.

    It doesn't mean you always need to do both. But in general, I think county government ought to be direcly providing services with the non-profits supplementing those services where appropriate. Its not really a question of cost-effectiveness, just effectiveness.

  • Jennifer W (unverified)
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    The county direct services inevitably cost more than the non-profits (which offer lower salaries/benefits and no pension). The non-profits are frequently much more successful, and they always bring more flexibility and volunteerism to the challenges they face.

  • Ramon (unverified)
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    Career politicians, themselves, usually make the best argument for term limits.

    I agree. But, on the other hand, this whole episode is the nightmare that term limits creates.

    The only outcome "created" by term limits are open seat elections - the same as if officeholders retired, voluntarily, more frequently. Almost always, this results in a more diverse, better qualified group of candidates because there is actually a real chance of winning. Term limits creates no "nightmares" - except for career politicians who would be tempted - by the opium of excess political power - to overstay in the same office.

    However, term limits alone cannot prevent incumbents from lack of accountability nor from office-jumping. We need a regular opportunity to vote for candidates who do not view public office as a political career - and open seat elections provide that.

    Breakdown of accountability results from the "Entourage" celebrity-incumbency effect that insures near-automatic re-election, even of term limited officials (until they are termed out by natural cause.) That would argue for:

    a) Repealing all the well-intended but counterproductive campaign regulations and limits that have locked-in the incumbent advantage by forcing challengers to compete on a "nightmarish" unlevel playing field , and/or

    b) Enacting shorter terms and shorter limits, for maximizing open-seat elections, and/or

    c) Employing broader use of voters' recall power.

    If you have bought the argument that term limits shifts power to unelected staff and lobbyists - take note: No staff or lobbyists ever contribute to a term limits campaign. Although 30% of politicians support the concept, only about 15% of staff and lobbyists favor term limits. They know that maintaining their power depends on keeping incumbents in office.

    Progressives ought to realize that larding on more of the same incumbent-worship will only bring about worse results. It's time to muck out the stables. Representation in a Democracy is simply too important to leave to professional politicians.

  • Ross Williams (unverified)
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    The only outcome "created" by term limits are open seat elections

    No. It creates lame-duck elected officials who no longer have to listen to or consider the opinions of the people who elected them since they can't run for reelection. Serena is a good example and there have been others. It also creates a short-termer effect where long-term problems are ignored because they can be passed on to the next set of elected officials until they reach a crisis.

    Term limits also create an incumbent protection effect as we saw in the last county commissioner elections. There is real reluctance to take on an incumbent when you can wait a term and run for an open seat. I would not be surprised if Maria Rojo de Steffey runs for reelection she fails to attract any serious opponent.

    There are benefits to forcing a game of musical chairs among the professional politicians every decade or two. But I am not sure term limits work very well as a permanent institution.

  • KISS (unverified)
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    So much for non-partisan politics. Maybe we need old fashion partisan commissioners to be kept in line by their party.

  • Betsy Richter (unverified)
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    Both Jeff Cogan and Lew Frederick spoke at Monday's hearing in favor of supporting sun, as did Oregon's Education Superintendent, Susan Castillo (the latter had a statement read on her behalf by Pat Burk.)

    The people at Monday night's hearing who spoke in favor of SUN (and I was one of them) were most certainly not on SUN's payroll. We showed up to tell our stories - over and over and over again - because we cannot believe this is happening to a program that we can all see with our own eyes has helped transform school communities; and continues to aid those in our community most in need of aid.

    I tried to engage each of the county commissioners by making eye contact as I testified. Only Diane Linn and Lonnie Roberts were even looking at me - I can't say for sure that the other commissioners even heard what I was saying, much less acknowledged my presence.

    And as for Maria de Rojo Steffey's walk out during Tony Hopson's speech - Renee Mitchell pegged it cold. I, for one, was stunned and amazed to witness it - and it wasn't until witnessing that moment that I was finally willing to believe that this was more about payback/vendetta than it was about program efficiencies or program effectiveness (the latest excuse that's being trotted out, per today's Oregonian article.)

  • John Capradoe (unverified)
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    The tidbit of information that people keep forgetting is how the County got in this mess. As Xander said in his post there are budget problems. Bev Stein tried to call Katz & Company(Saltzman, Cogen, etc) back in 2000 when she pointed out that the Interstate UR District alone would pull $5-6 million out of the County's Childrens Services Budget annually. Let alone the diverted property tax dollars from the other 15 districts estmated at over $60 million annually. Yes in the Gateway UR some of the money built a much needed childrens receiving center Saltzman touted repeadedly during his campaign, BUT how was this funded, were Condo Tax deferrals minimized, NO; Were Developer givaways curbed, NO; The funding for the center was diverted from a proposed park an amenity sorely needed in that area for the kids. The much touted Childrens Initiative only temporarily replaces, a fraction of the money going to "development".

  • Italics Police (unverified)
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    Italics Gone?

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    The county direct services inevitably cost more than the non-profits (which offer lower salaries/benefits and no pension).

    Excuse me, but at a time when when health care costs for families are skyrocketing and 120,000 Oregon kids are uninsured, I hardly think that this is something to celebrate or encourage. We need more people to be insured, not fewer.

  • Gecko (unverified)
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    Sargent:

    I guess that depends on whether or not you are a member of the civil service, or the underclass.

    If we quit subsidizing condo farms and ski lifts, there would be a lot more money for government to pay employees and provide services.

    I've seen heroin addicts drop out of treatment for lack of $14/month to cover their program costs. The city will be pissing of $14/minute just in the parking fees that they are dedicating to subsidize the Tram.

  • Jennifer W. (unverified)
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    Study: Only 25 percent of blacks in Oregon will graduate

    Uh-ohhh: we better find some way to blame Oregon's worst in the country performance on the Bush Administration.

    It couldn't have anything to do with the Portland Public Schools or those mean girls, could it? They care so very much for all children of color, don't they?

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