"Outrageous" School Closures

Marc Abrams

This past week, PPS Superintendent Vicki Phillips proposed closing six schools. The usual outrage then ensued, with folks essentially saying "do something else, find something else, don’t impact my kid, impact the kid behind the tree." The more curious response was that both of our newspapers implied the decision was the result of top down management style that was unsuited to Portland.


First of all, let’s face the truth – PPS has lost 9,000 students, one-sixth of its total, in the past ten years. We cannot in good faith sustain all these buildings. Buildings are not schools. Programs are schools. Teachers are schools. Parents and children are schools. If you change boundaries, within a few years a new community forms. Most major districts do this with far greater frequency than does PPS. I for one, and though I’m off the PPS Board am still a PPS parent, would rather pay for student teacher ratio than for 80 year old crumbling buildings, more non-teaching staff overhead and utilities.

Second, Phillips (who came on Kremer and Abrams yesterday and answered all callers) did not do anything an atom differently from how Jim Scherzinger handled matters when we closed a few schools two years ago. He picked them, after careful analysis, and he talked one by one with the Board to make sure he wouldn’t be left hanging out there. That’s what a good manger does and that’s what Phillips has done. You want public process? You’ll get it. In fact, even after Phillips denied this, I still think there’s a good chance that one of the fish will be thrown back into the pond to show the public was listened too. That fish will (and should) be Edwards, with it’s year-round program. What did folks want? An announcement that "we need to close six schools – you pick ‘em?" That’s not public process, that’s chaos. We elect a Board to decide after public input, not to manage a process of direct democracy where whoever shows up at school board meetings gets to vote.

Third, frankly, Phillips did not go far enough. We don’t need ten high schools in this District. I suggest to you that it’s time to close Jefferson. As Henry Cabot Lodge once famously said, "declare victory and go home." Jeff is down to 700 kids. This despite receiving almost twice the per pupil funding of every other high school, including No Child Left Behind designated Marshall and Roosevelt. This despite having a student-teacher ratio every other kid in the District would kill for. This despite getting magnets and special treatment galore for 25 years.

The parents have voted with their feet. Last time I looked at the numbers, of those high school age children in the Jefferson attendance area, 41% went to Benson, and only 33% to Jeff. The next lowest capture rate (and admittedly this was two years ago before NCLB transfers) was 86% at Madison. None of the supposed cures have convinced the consumers of the product. About six years ago, when I delivered the welcome at Jeff’s graduation, I met before hand with student leaders. One of them, heartbreakingly, told me "Our parents think we’re the dumb ones. The smart ones they send to Benson."

Perhaps Phillips should be given her chance to repeat the efforts of the past. After all, she’s new and brimming with optimism. Perhaps it will be different this time. Perhaps a combined 12th grade/freshman year at PCC program, which Lolenzo Poe and I advocated two years ago and which Phillips has embraced, will be the key to revival of Jefferson. But let’s not pretend that keeping this school open as it is helps the African-American community, or even that the school is "historically" Black. It does not and it is not.

If we closed Jeff, we would have to do some real boundary changes. Expanding Roosevelt – which is NCLB [meaning students can transfer out by fiat] doesn’t help. We’d need to move Cleveland north, Grant west, and, because Grant would then need to lose population, Franklin north and west. The result would be that Grant would become majority minority, and does anyone doubt that Grant is an effective program? Cleveland has the International Baccalaureate program, which is currently unavailable to Jeff students, and which is making Cleveland a highly competitive institution. There may be voices advocating for Jefferson, but how many of them have children at the school?

So let the public process begin, but I would suggest not only that the choice to close schools was the right one, I’d suggest it if we put aside adult politics, it didn’t go far enough.

  • (Show?)

    Not everyone is outraged. Most parents and community members in North Portland seem to me to be taking a pretty thoughtful approach.

  • LT (unverified)

    Sounds intelligent, Marc.

    To see the first intelligent thing the Salem district has been discussing in quite some time (whether a small older building whose enrollment had shrunk should be a charter school) go to this URL.

  • Steve Bucknum (unverified)

    It has been interesting to watch the latest round of school closures unfold from two vantage points. First, I am a graduate of Jefferson HS, and second, I have been a Central Oregonian for much longer than I was a Portland Public School student (K-12). I read the Portland paper, and watch the Portland TV channels, and watch Portland get caught up with itself.

    So, a couple of points.

    One, Portland is one of the most expensive school districts in the State. Two, everyone in the State is either closing schools, reducing programs, laying off staff, etc. -- It is a State-wide problem.

    So, why is it that the first place some people go when a school is threatened with closure is to think that the Superintendent might be wrong? Portland is one of the most expensive school districts in the State because of old buildings, lots of buildings, and high administrative overhead. Phillips has recently canned some expensive administrators and is moving to close old/expensive buildings. She's right on course!

    But back to my Central Oregon perspective. Here in Crook County, we have ONE high school - no option to close it. So, we have no HS librarian, few new textbooks, larger and larger classes, less and less days of instruction, we are on the verge of closing down some program components, and generally the school system here is more overcrowded (in terms of student/teacher ratio) than what I saw as a baby boomer in Portland when that district had 75,000 students! The whole State of Oregon is now finding itself with resources less than we had 30/40 years ago, inflation adjusted.

    So, from my perspective, the Portland School closure issue is only a small symptom of the larger problem, which is an anti-government / no tax, cultural war going on here.

    Folks, I get it all the time that people think that the rural parts of the State (that vote more Republican than the urban parts) are anti-government, no tax. But really, that isn't true. We are pro-kids, pro-seniors, pro-farm, pro-ranch, pro-transportation, pro-library, and pro-social. We take care of our own. In the last 10 years we have built a new High School, built a new Library, and willingly spend money on transportation and infrastructure.

    When Measure 5 passed in 1990, it wasn't the rural parts of the State that passed it. It was the urban parts. In rural areas, we knew that Measure 5 meant a loss of local control. And that is what we want back.

    We don't have a local income tax here. So we can't tap that as additional school revenue. We have State income tax, and local property tax that under Measures 5 and 50 is limited. We would love to take back local control of our school funding. We clearly would spend more money on ourselves, than give the State the money to hand back to us. It's simple psychology. We don't trust the outsiders with our money.

    So, it isn't about Phillips. Its about Measure 5, still, 15 years later. We should re-frame this issue to be one of local control.

  • Duke Shepard (unverified)

    Well stated Mr. Abrams. I found the outcry predictable but still amazing. Perhaps it’s because I’m a Portland transplant (though a lifelong Oregonian). Perhaps it’s because I live in east Portland, in the Parkrose district and a stone’s throw from the David Douglas district. I find myself at times baffled by the sheer volume of reaction to straightforward and logical public policy in Portland, especially when it comes to PPS. And honestly, when it comes to schools, the reaction usually seems centered in the more well-to-do enclaves of SW and inner SE Portland. From what I’ve seen in the media, you’d have thought that the current proposal was to send these kids to military schools in another state, not just another public school nearby. The district math on this decision is pretty simple. When enrollment declines and funding is reduced, it’s time to do something different. I live across the street from a former grade school in the Parkrose district. It’s now a head start program and a city park because, years ago, this district made decisions about schools when enrollment declined. Likewise, David Douglas is currently realigning its boundaries for grade schools and middle schools due to enrollment growth. There is no reactionary uprising and outcry of victimization in David Douglas. While I’m sure there are those who don’t like it, I don’t hear parents claiming that they are being “punished”. The bottom line is equivalent to what’s happening in PPS, only it’s driven by enrollment growth rather than decline - kids are changing schools. The interesting thing to me is that a bigger idea hasn’t been floated in Portland. Years ago at an X-Pac forum I proposed to Scherzinger and Derry Jackson (OK, admittedly the only functioning brain there was Scherzinger) this idea: Why don’t we talk about breaking PPS up into smaller districts? From their reaction, you’d have thought I proposed colonizing Mars – they’d never pondered it and immediately dismissed it. Smaller districts have greater community connection and more accountability. This is an oversimplification, but families from Marshall High School are never going to run into a school board member at their neighborhood grocery store. Never. And even if they did, they only run into one. At best only one member of that board is there who really has a personal connection to that part of town. The mostly city-wide (excluding Portlanders who live in other districts like myself) election of this board runs counter to the idea of schools being about neighborhoods and subsets of the larger community. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence to me that when the school funding crisis started and continued over and over, the smaller districts managed it better. They reacted more creatively and with greater fiscal prudence. Decisions being made by PPS now should have been made sooner. Moreover, while many point solely to housing costs as the reason for school growth out here on the east side, that’s not all it is. People also make decisions based on quality.
    There comes a point where an organization outgrows the economies of scale that typically justify growth and just becomes too darn big and inefficient – diseconomies of scale. Isn’t that the case with PPS? Couple the breakup idea with rethinking the role of ESD’s and the fact that the state is the primary K-12 funder, and maybe there is potential here. I don’t know if it would work or not – I’m just a jobless loser typing on a blog – but it seems to me that breaking up the district into smaller districts is at least worth thinking and talking about. I do know that a candidate for mayor of Los Angles named Bob Hertzberg is running on a proposal to breakup the LA Unified District, and he just snared the LA Times endorsement and looks like he’ll make the runoff (www.changela.com). Why hasn’t the idea arisen here? Or did I miss it?

  • JW (unverified)

    As the parent of a Smith Elementary fourth grader, and a 20-year resident of SW Portland, I'd like to provide some context regarding Marc's blog.

    There can be no argument that Portland's (and Oregon's) schools need substantive changes in order to provide our children with the best education our money can buy.

    Where we (Smith parents) part company with the administration is when the School Board decides to close schools that are performing as intended.

    Smith and Edwards were both given an exceptional rating on the state report card for the 03-04 year. This was the second year in a row for Edwards, and the first for Smith. If rewarding performance is as important to the school district as it is to the business world, what kind of message does that send to the rest of the schools? Perhaps the teachers, students and principals will infer that no matter how well you perform, the adminstration and school board are going to create larger schools, no matter the effect on the children's education? That all the data showing that small schools outperform larger schools is so much "Booshwah"? In 20-some years as a salesperson, much of it on commission, I've never seen someone who was meeting sales goals fired or demoted because someone else in the company wasn't doing very well.

    A great deal has been made of the "declining enrollment" claim. Smith Elementary's enrollment has been flat for the past 4 years, dipping to 223 students only this year. Why? Perhaps it's because PPS just opened a magnet "Odyssey" program less than a mile and a half away at Hayhurst. PPS sold the Odyssey program as the greatest thing since html, and 19, out of 240 students decided to try it out. Their reasons for making the change vary from dissatisfaction with a particular staff member to a willingness to embrace something new and potentially revolutionary. But losing 19 students in one year is not a trend!

    According to the district's own calculations (http://www.pps.k12.or.us/news-c/school_reorg_0405/Smith.pdf), declining enrollment is not a problem at Smith. And the 10-year population trend in the district is for continued growth up to 285 students. In fact, all of the schools that Smith's dissolution is supposed to benefit show growth trends over the next 5 and 10 year periods without Smith's students. All except Markham will exceed capacity within 5 years. Where do the students who move into or are born into the neighborhood go then?

    So, if the school is meeting benchmarks and the cost savings are negligible (Superintendent Phillips has stated that this isn't a financial decision), what could be the motivating factor for the proposed closure of Smith.

    I offer two theories:

    1)The last round of school closures of poorly performing schools was limited to Portland's eastside. The other 5 schools identified for closure this time around are on the eastside. Perhaps closing Smith is someone's idea of balance. If so, I guess we should be grateful they didn't go into medicine. Using that logic, amputating a severely infected limb on one side would necessitate the removal of a healthy limb on the other to balance the patient. Right.

    2)Smith school sits on 5 acres of flat, SW Portland real estate, currently zoned at R-5. As the R-10 zoned 1-acre lot next to my house just sold for over $400,000, perhaps the school board is looking to get in the real estate business and make a quick $4,000,000. This kind of crisis-to-crisis thinking is what has brought us to our current unhappy reality. Selling of a relatively modern (48 years, not 80 Marc)school, with recently upgraded seismic and heating infrastructure for a one-time infusion of capital is myopic. The allegory that comes to mind is "eating ones' seed corn". It may taste good today, but you're going to be hungry tomorrow.

    It's truly unfortunate that the superintendent has chosen this as her first (ok, second-Goldschmidt's firing was her first) battle. She has serious problems to address, and she's going to need all the support she can muster to make the necessary and long overdue changes. Closing Smith and Edwards will diminish that support and make those changes that much harder to accomplish.

    Oh, and it will hurt the kids and the community they live in too.

    Just my two cents,

  • auggie (unverified)

    I am surprised at your prediction about Edwards, as it seems moving the year-round-school program to a school site with the capacity to allow more student into the program makes sense. I don’t view it as a punishment for Edwards getting an exception rating, but merely as a way to allow more kids the opportunity to make education advances in the year-round-school-program.

    Edwards, currently, is at capacity with 199 students – only 32 of which are from the Edwards neighborhood (the Edwards neighborhood has 60 kids total who would be eligible to go to Edwards, but 28 have chosen to go elsewhere). Although I am not discounting the effects on those 32 students who live in the neighborhood, it seems the benefits are greater to many others who may be able to attend the year-round program, which has a proven ability to achieve education advances in students.

  • JW (unverified)

    I imagine one reason the Edwards students (and parents) might oppose the closure is that their children will be moving from a school size of 199 to one of over 400 (199+203). Every study on school sizes shows that smaller schools promote increased academic achievement, lower rates of "at-risk" behvior and higher graduation rates. At Smith, we are not at capacity (according to the school district). But rather than develop a plan to increase attendance (which would probably increase with our most recent "excellent" report card and projected population increases), they propose to close the school, split up the kids and send them to three, more distant schools. For the district's motivation to pursue that course of action, please refer to my earlier post.

  • Ruth (unverified)

    We've been making cuts at PPS, both at the central office (which is down to an ultra-lean 3% of their budget) and in the classroom, for years. Enough already. These are schools not widget factories. Bigger is not better. And focus options do not a school district make.

    Why aren't focus option programs ever on the chopping block? Why aren't these programs ever criticized for being too small or inefficient? Neighborhood programs are always the first to go, yet I would argue they are the true heart and soul of our public school system.

    I disagree with Supt. Philips that fully utilized, relatively low cost-per-child programs such as Edwards and Smith should be closed, especially given that the District's ostensible mission is high achievement and both these schools are doing that. It is a different matter (though still very difficult for the community involved) if you have a very small population inside a very large older building. This is not the case with Smith and Edwards.

    Yes, the schools they would be merged with are also fine programs. But the benefits of elementary schools with less than 300 students are well proven by the research and by the experience of families in those programs. When these excellent programs are located within "right-sized," newer buildings with strong neighborhood support, it does not make sense to close them.

  • the prof (unverified)

    Marc, Another salvo from the Oregonian today.

    PPS is going to lose almost one fourth of its budget in two years unless: a) the local tax surcharge is extended, and b) you can get a double-majority property tax levy passed.

    Mark Weiner is quoted as saying the second is impossible, and I suspect the first is as well.

    So how can the District possibly absorb a 25% budget cut?

    I am so dispirited. I am recruiting for two jobs next year ... what do i tell the candidates??

  • DA (unverified)

    Riddle me this, if Ms. Phillips is the second coming, how is it one of her employees is still named "Derry Jackson"?

    We can close an overachieving elementary school because for the first year in several, enrollment declined due to a mass exodus to a newly opened program nearby (and/or because folks are packing their bags coz they don't like the distinction of being citizens of the only county west of the Mississippi to be charged a county income tax, while simultaneously incapable of even employing a dog catcher), but we still have a school board member repeatedly jailed and facing $200K bail? C'mon, gimmie a break!

    If you REALLY want to get back to basics and fundamentals, and conservatism, just like in football, where losing teams fall back and focus on blocking and tackling; how about Ms. Phillips demonstrating some basic management skills inside her own offices before she tackles the larger, external issues, hmmm?

    Until she cleans her own house, the credibility of ANY of her plans is suspect, to me.


  • (Show?)

    DA, Derry Jackson is not an employee of the Portland Public Schools. Derry is an elected member of the Portland School Board. He cannot be removed, except by recall election. He is, however, up for re-election in May - and has not announced whether he is running.

  • leigh (unverified)

    We have lived in Portland for nine years and I still do not understand why education is such a low priority for such a seemingly progressive, family-friendly city. We came from the south because we fell in love with Portland...and we fully expected the schools here to be far ahead in every area...particularly the arts and other programs. But, unfortunately, for our children...a first grader and a third grader...we are now looking to move to a smaller home so we can pay for private school. We really believe in public school and loved the idea of our children attending their neighborhood school with other children from the same area. I guess those days are over for Portland. As these amazing little neighborhood schools diminish, the communities surrounding them will be diminish as well... financially and in spirit. Strong schools build strong communities...so PPS higher-ups need to get their blinders off and start looking at the bigger picture here or families will be leaving this otherwise wonderful city in droves.

  • John (unverified)

    Sounds really in depth, too bad you didn't stick it out two years ago Marc. I would have appreciated this info in 2003. That was a real high profile race, you most certainly would have been coveraged with this kind of detail.

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