Take a Time Out on High School Redesign

Rich Rodgers

Rushing into a decision to close Jefferson and Marshall would be a major mistake.

Big news this week in Portland public education.

We are told that a majority of the board members of Portland Public Schools are rejecting the main thrust of Superintendent Carole Smith's effort to redesign the district's high schools. Whereas Smith focused heavily on changes to the district's transfer policy, the new board proposal largely scraps Smith's plan, instead proposing to close Jefferson in addition to Marshall high school.

The proposal to close Jefferson--Oregon's only majority African-American high school--was not part of the Superintendent's recommendation over these past several months of high school redesign discussions. To my knowledge, the closure plan has only just emerged in the past week, with plans for a final vote on June 21st. The votes might be there, but this is shaping up to be another heartbreaking chapter in a long history of major decisions being visited upon Portland's black community by Portland's white majority.

The school board should take a time out. There are many alternatives, and minor and major strategies that can be incorporated into the overall evaluation. That work has not been done, and it includes looking at housing investments, urban renewal spending, state government participation, and a number of other elements outside of the district's direct control. But at a minimum, our history should tell us that people deserve to participate in these kinds of major decisions--and two weeks is a slap in the face to the notion of any kind of decent respect for public opinion.

Rushing into a decision to close Jefferson and Marshall would be a major mistake.

Several factors come into play:

The first and most important is the state of Oregon's disinvestment in education since the passage of Measure 5 in 1990, outlined in detail by Steve Novick last month. Additionally, because Oregon lacks Systems Development Charges for schools, the massive housing boom from the 1990s through 2006 failed to provide facilities funding that is badly needed at schools like Jefferson and Marshall.

Enrollment at Jefferson and Marshall high schools is down significantly over the past several years, in no small part because of the series of short-term experiments tried out at these high schools, and instability in leadership and organization. The school board and district staff have yet to acknowledge that they are complicit in the decline in enrollment, and in nurturing the general sense of turmoil. Under the district's transfer policy, large numbers of parents from the Jefferson and Marshall neighborhoods have reacted to all of this turmoil by sending their children to other PPS schools. Others have moved out of the district by choice, or send their children to private school.

A third major factor is gentrification, especially in the Jefferson neighborhood. A large percentage of Portland's African-American community, along with many other households of modest incomes, has been displaced from N/NE Portland owing to rising housing costs. The city of Portland has unintentionally fueled this trend through many of its efforts to make inner Portland neighborhoods more attractive. The city should be looking at its portfolio of community investments as an exercise in finding the optimal balancing of a number of factors, not merely a steady push to raise property values. Some of this is happening already, but the talented staff at the City's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability should be given a lead role in tying city decisions and neighborhood involvement to school facilities, enrollment, and curriculum planning.

While Superintendent Smith did propose the elimination of Marshall as a neighborhood school, she did acknowledge that there were alternative ideas for keeping the neighborhood ties to Marshall. One proposal would cede control over Marshall to the David Douglas School District, PPS's neighbor to the East. David Douglas has one high school, the largest in the state, with an enrollment above 2,700 students. This week, David Douglas High School was honored by Education Week as one of 21 districts in the country to achieve an 'Outstanding' designation for its ability to deliver graduation rates (83%) far in excess of what demographic data would predict (63%). Compare this to the dismal graduation rates at PPS schools with similar demographic profiles, and you have a self-evident reason for slowing down on the redesign and engaging in talks with David Douglas, the city of Portland, Portland Community College, and the State of Oregon about a partnership on a renewed Marshall campus.

The district has no funding base to meet its facilities needs. Marshall sits right on the boundary between the two districts. Many details would have to be worked out, but PPS appears ready to reject any type of collaborative effort on Marshall. This would be a mistake.

Good things, not bad things, come from well-executed public involvement plans. Unfortunately, though at the mercy of external funding restrictions that compel gut-wrenching choices, Portland Public Schools has proven itself to be exceptionally bad at public involvement--especially when it comes to facilities and curriculum questions that cut across its major departments. The district's best course would be to acknowledge its history of failures to effectively engage the community, and find a way to fix this process. The Governor, State Superintendent, the City of Portland, and Portland's legislative delegation should help to lead a better public process, because the schools certainly can't solve these problems alone.

Portland's greatest successes have come from trying to achieve constructive goals, and then finding the specific ways forward by tapping into the uniquely strong commitment to civic engagement evidenced by Portland residents. The people who live here are smart, and they care. Give them a chance to help solve the problems, and the quality of the overall proposal will improve. The process to find answers will be more complex with the right level of public involvement, and the effort to synthesize creative community proposals will take real leadership and attention, and that's how it should be.

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    Hi Rich- Do you agree with the District's analysis that they don't have enough money to keep open all the high schools in PPS? If so, would you keep Benson open AND how would you propose paying for that? (i.e. which other high school or programs would you suggest eliminating?)

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    I would like to see a school-by-school breakdown of staffing, operating and facilities costs. I haven't been able to find it online. David Wynde has a banking background, and he's always had a very good grasp on the numbers, and he's against the seven school plan at this time.

    I do have some questions about capacity in the local property tax levy. It seems to me that most of the properties in PPS are well under Measure 5 limits. The problem there is the unique nature of the state funding formula.

    I think David Douglas would do a better job with Marshall than PPS, but the facility needs a lot of work. There should be a number of potential sources for this one time funding.

    Also think it's important not to look at enrollment as fixed, or part of an inexorable trend. A lot can be done to influence enrollment.

    But I don't know how you get through the $2.5 billion budget gap forecast for next session.

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    There is a fair amount of data available, of course, for a general familiarity with staffing levels. What's harder to discern from these documents are the savings associated with a closure of a neighborhood school.

    The staffing formulas that start on page 27 provide some insight.

    For example, a high school with less than 200 students has 1 vice principal, as does a high school with 899.

    The SES and Title I adjustments alter the formulas. I'm not sure of the details, but read on PPS Equity that they carried over $3 million in Title I funds last year.

    But again, so much of this is fluid. Just look at the interplay between Title I, setting up the academies to avoid NCLB sanctions, and the subsequent loss of enrollment-based revenue.

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    Here's a quick run-down that leads me to wonder how the financial issues improve under the board plan:

    The total budget is $650 million.

    District-wide instruction is $330 million, of which high schools account for $60M, elementary $104M, middle school $41M, and special ed $117 million. Instruction support is another $72 million on top of the $330M--that's social work, safety, health, guidance, speech, etc.

    Non-instructional support is $146 million, including $36 million for HR, IT & public information, $30M for school admin (principals, etc.), $75 million for financial staff, maintenance, custodial, utilities and transportation, and $5M for the superintendent's office.

    Jefferson has 34 teachers total (for the 654 students in the 6-12 Young Woman's Academy and 8-12 general student body combined). So you're talking $3.4 million or so for all instruction costs, including benefits and retirement. There is a principal, two vice-principals, 1.75 FTE clerical, 1.5 FTE counselors. All staff about $4 million, less than the cost of the superintendent's office.

    You don't really save much of this by closing the schools, of course, since the staff is allocated using formulas. I suspect most of the savings comes from utilities, plus elimination of custodial staff, maintenance costs, etc. I doubt the savings would be more than $1 million a year if you totally closed it, and that's not the proposal.

    They're talking about leaving a program there, so basically forget about any real savings at all.

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    I just want to correct something. Superintendent Smith has shown no interest in ceding control of Marshall over to David Douglas.

    She'd like to lease the facility to the David Douglas School District, which would send students who live across the street from Marshall to Madison High School (40 minutes away) while busing students in from the DDSD to the underutilized Marshall campus.

    But PPS has scoffed at the idea of an outright boundary change between DDSD and PPS, and Smith has shown little interest in finding a way to keep students from the Marshall neighborhood at Marshall.

    It's a discriminatory closure that should offend Portlanders just as much as the proposal to close Jefferson. Marshall is equally as diverse and is PPS' only symbolic link to anything east of 82nd Avenue.

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